Cameron Buries Good news

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David Cameron has been using the nuclear explosion of outrage that has greeted the Milly Dowler phone-hacking revelations as an opportunity to bury good news.  The prime minister announced this morning that Speaker Bercow is to be sent into exile. To Afghanistan. Now  we know why the Speaker’s wife, our Sal, has been seen recently wearing a sheet.

The curious announcement was made this morning that Mr Bercow is to participate in a UK-Afghanistan parliamentary exchange scheme.  The existence of  this part of the rich Anglo-Afghan heritage will, I think it is fair to say, have come as a surprise to most British parliamentarians, including the Speaker himself.  Now he is to be its beneficiary. Bercow will trade places with his opposite number in Afghanistan’s lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi. Mr Ibrahimi’s catch phrase “I ask the House to reflect on what the Taliban will think of this sort of behaviour” has become a firm favourite with viewers of Al-Jazeera’s immensely popular parliamentary sketch show Kabul Kapers.  

Moments before announcing the Bercow banishment, Mr Cameron had issued an impassioned plea to Afghanistan’s warring factions to cease their violence. Presumably the idea is that they should give it a week or two to allow plenty of time for the Speaker’s plane to arrive. Best of all, however, was the reaction of a Downing Street spokesman when asked whether Mr Bercow had been asked to take part in the exchange. “I am sure he is fully supportive of our efforts”, replied the spokesman. Or will be, perhaps.

I dare say  too that the Commons will be a much brighter, happier, place for being presided over by Mr Ibrahami.  Tory MPs will be interested to know that he comes from the province of Kundoz. So they won’t have to think of him that differently from Speaker Bercow after all.



The Frisking of our Pensioners

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The House of Commons yesterday addressed itself to the inevitability of old age.  This is quite normal. Our MPs spend many hours talking about things over which they have no control and generally seem the more contented for it. Usually it is the European Union robbing them of their potency, but the EU being currently otherwise engaged organising a car-boot sale for the Greek economy, the inaudible and noiseless foot of time stepped up for duty on this occasion.

The good news, as Health Secretary Lansley set off on his long, dull statement in response to the Dilnot Commission on the funding of long-term care, was that Ed Miliband had already promised co-operation and consensus from the official opposition.  This was a relief, especially to those of us worried that we would find ourselves with one side of the aisle promising dignity, security and comfort for our old folk and the other pressing for a bullet in the back of the head followed by a short drop into a lime-laced pit.  John Healey, Mr Lansley’s opposite number, anxious not to become the pit party, talked about Mr Miliband’s “big offer” and called for “cross-party, cross-government” talks. Later, MPs on all sides of the chamber referred to recent instances of care-home providers getting into financial difficulties. Mr Lansley, who seemed, as far as I could tell, generally less of an enthusiast the consensual approach, certainly wasn’t in the business of offering Southern Cross-party talks.

There is history here. In a brief outburst of extreme political naivety before the last general election, an attempt was made then for the parties to agree upon how long-term care for the elderly should be funded, The experiment fell apart amid much acrimony. Mr Lansley fiercely holds that it was the other lot who reneged. However, his are the fingerprints upon the phrase “death taxes” that burst into the public space at the moment of implosion. That standard-bearer of political consensus, Dennis Skinner, offered Mr Lansley yesterday the chance to atone for his harsh words, but the Secretary of State declined.

Besides, Mr Lansley would say that, if atonement were needed, he has already done his bit by commissioning Andrew Dilnot and a couple of others to produce another long and well-considered report upon this most interminable and imponderable of issues.  Mr Lansley is not the first Secretary of State to spring into action and commission a report, and no doubt he will not be the last. The favourite Westminster metaphor talks about kicking an issue into the long-grass. The funding of long-term care has had more time in the hayfield than a wench in Tom Jones.

And is destined for a good deal more if the evidence of yesterday’s statement is anything to go by.  Mr Lansley promised that he would “consider the [Dilnot] recommendations as a priority”. This in the great gearbox of government action roughly equates to a reluctant shift into second and even that stands ready to be reversed:  the Secretary of State went on to point up the need to “consider the recommendations carefully against other funding priorities and calls on our constrained resources”.  Quite why, in the light of these red flashing lights, the Conservative backbencher Oliver Colville felt the need to ask Mr Lansley whether he had discussed the report with the Treasury is a mystery.

Dilnot’s main proposal is that there should be a cap on the amount an individual should have to pay towards the cost of his or her own care, before the state-funded cavalry arrives to pay the rest of the bill.  Nobody from any party seemed to object much to the idea of there being a cap; all that needs to be decided through the many more months of “stakeholder engagement” that lie ahead is the level at which it should be set. In truth, the answer to this question can be arrived at not by consulting the copious old-age lobby, but by talking to a decent actuary who can let you know how much the different options cost.

Certainly, all the evidence is that the Government’s approach to the massive celebration that, we are told, is extended old age, is more actuarial than philosophical. All Labour’s questioning in one way or another concerned the ways in which the state’s engagement in our dotage (as we should think of it)  should be calculated, calibrated and controlled. There was, for example, much agreement with the Dilnot proposal that there should be a standard eligibility test for meals on wheels, a sort of national pensioner-frisking exercise to decide which ones get past the gate and into the garden of state munificence. Without it, of course, we shall be exposed to that most disgusting of modern pestilences, the postcode lottery.

There was little sign, however, of any Tories, front or backbench, departing from this received wisdom: barely an attempt to argue for individual foresightedness or the bastion of the family to prepare the defences against the vandalism of time. We shall all need to throw ourselves upon the mercies of the tax-payer, seemed to be the message; the only question being when and for how much.  Indeed, Mr Lansley referred to a particularly gruesome manifestation of this inevitability when he started burbling on about something called “telehealth whole system demonstrator pilots”.  Personally,  all the telly-health I hope to get in old age is the opportunity to slump mindlessly in front of The Weakest Link. It seems, however, that the Secretary of State has something more interactive in mind, possibly involving press-ups.

Only two Tories offered brief hope of a way out.  Charlie Elphicke from Dover asked the Secretary of State about prevention, though what might have been a promising line of inquiry into research funding for the elixir of eternal youth degenerated into something altogether more mundane about respite care. And David Nuttall from Bury North wanted to know about the legalisation of euthanasia, before revealing that he was against this approach and not advancing it as a solution.

So, where did we get to?  Another Commission come and gone. Another white paper promised in another spring. Much nodding of heads about the intractability of the problem; much agreement on the “principles” and hopes for more consultation and consensus. No clue about how we are going to pay for it. Shakespeare had this illimitable and endlessly repeating process right: sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The home life of our dear Leader of the Opposition

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When politicians start to appear in the public discourse routinely with the prefix “poor” in front of their names, it is generally a sign that it’s time to call in the undertakers. Ask poor Mr Major who started to appear this way from about, as I recall, 1995. It was a long, slow, decay in this case and we can only wonder if Ed Miliband is destined to last as long now that he is Poor Mr Miliband after his spooky “these strikes are wrong” interview that everyone is looking at today.

According to this account of said interview, written by the reporter who conducted it, Mr Miliband had three aides on hand to help him through it. And not one of them able to find the off-switch.  The interview is simultaneously hilarious and gruesome that it doesn’t really require commentary, though picture, if you, will, the scene as PMM arrives home from work that evening:

Mrs M:  Ed darling, if you could just switch off the Nintendo for a moment. What do you say that we order in a takeaway and then make it an early night?

PMM:    I say that these strikes are wrong and that the Government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner.

Poor Mrs M too.

Incidentally, I treasure the line in Damon Green’s account that the prime minister’s aides won’t allow him to be photographed in front of “anything Etonian”. That must make shots with the full Cabinet tricky for a start.

This leads on to a thought I had the other day that 2015 – the scheduled date for the next election –  is two hundred years on from the Battle of Waterloo.  Moreover, the precise anniversary – Waterloo Day – is 18th June and a Thursday that year. What better platform could there be for the Conservatives to enjoy an ever-popular patriotic, squash the frogs theme for their rallying cry?

Except that, alas, the last legal date for the election is 11th June, the week before. So near, yet so far. Now it turns out that the point is academic in any case.  There must be some reporters out there who will recall that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. So Cameron cannot be associated with it even if he wanted to.