Back to the Eighties

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The prize for opportunistic question of the week at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday went to Iain Mackenzie, the Labour member for Inverclyde.  Inspired by those dramatic photographs of the cruise ship Concordia, diagonally-posed in tranquil waters off the Tuscan coast, Mr Mackenzie rose to challenge the prime minister on the threat of a similar fate awaiting luxury liners heading for Greenock Harbour in his constituency.  This is because apparently someone has sacked all Greenock’s coastguards.

It seems unlikely, in the system of devolved government under which we live, that the prime minister commands much authority over the employment of coastguards on the River Clyde. The point of the question was presumably to demonstrate the unintended consequences of Mr Cameron’s cuts.  Or was Mr Mackenzie just trying to get his face – a tall and tapering construction, not unlike an inverted lighthouse – into the local papers before the Concordia story, unlike the stricken vessel herself, sinks beneath the waves?  Either way, it felt like an improbable premise for a scandal. Is Greenock really a hot destination on that many luxury cruise itineraries?  Nor can there be too much danger of the captain sailing too close to the shore – allegedly the cause of the Concordia’s downfall – for fear of subtracting from the view of Dumbarton on the other side.

Ed Miliband surprised us less with his originality by leading on the subject of unemployment – the obvious topic on a day when the number out of work rose to its highest total for 18 years.  Like all opposition leaders, Miliband over-prepares for PMQs. He has taken particularly to heart the advice given to courtroom lawyers only to ask questions to which you already know the answer.

“Does he think the unemployment situation will get any worse”, Miliband asked Cameron, a pointless piece of artifice, since he knows full well that the Office of Budget Responsibility, the Government’s official bean-counters, say that yes it will. The prime minister answered  by praising his Government’s wise and generous move to set up the OBR in the first place. When these objective and independent folk say we are going to hell in a handcart we know they speak the truth, and are not just trying to sell us a cruise to Glasgow to take our minds off it. What comfort this is supposed to bring to the long-term unemployed is never revealed.

It was all very reminiscent of the 1980s, when government and opposition bickered incessantly about the unemployment figures and whether or not they had been artfully rearranged. It was Miliband who unwisely invoked this comparison. This, after all, was an era when Labour got battered at elections more thoroughly than a North Sea cod. Moreover, the idea that Mr Miliband is Michael Foot with more scrupulous hair and better suits is one that cannot quite be dispelled, and the Labour leader shouldn’t encourage us to think that way.

At heart, however, this is a question of psychology. For Labour the 1980s were an era of betrayal, anger and injustice. In that way there was something real and noble about them, embodying everything the party exists to fight against. For the Tories meanwhile those same years were a golden time of glut and gaiety, when Thatcher was Thatcher not Meryl Streep, and the Liberals had the capacity to annoy no one more important than the Social Democrats.

Andrew Rosindell, the bellicose Tory who sits for Romford, was also in the 1980s spirit. At his last run-out at PMQs, Mr Rosindell had advised the prime minister to stick it to the Europeans at the Brussels summit. Whether Mr Cameron was inspired by Rosindell’s bulldog spirit to veto the European treaty we shall never know, but today the Essex exocet was on Argentina’s case. He  invoked the “30-year war against Argentina” (by which he meant it happened 30 years ago; it isn’t still going on, except perhaps in Romford) to exhort Mr Cameron not to accept any nonsense from Buenos Aires with its new outbreak of low-level aggression against the Falklands.

The prime minister replied accusing the Argentinians of behaving like colonialists and revealing that the National Security Council had devoted much discussion yesterday to the subject. Really? What did they decide? Our ability to send a task force these days is  constrained by the fact that the French need the aircraft carrier back on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Perhaps we will send the new Royal Yacht that Michael Gove wants to build, always supposing that he can find the private companies to pay for it.  Anyway, with our luck, it will capsize on its maiden voyage and end up floating outside Greenock harbour, with nothing showing except the B&Q logos on its hull.




Pig Hoo-oo-ey

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The first prime minister’s questions of the year began with the unusual, and surprisingly uplifting, news that the processed pig industry is thriving on Humberside.  Mr Graham Stuart, a Conservative MP from the patch, informed the prime minister that an outfit called Cranswick Country Foods in Preston in his constituency – whose rich and reassuring name, so redolent of a line of Range Rovers parked outside an overpriced farm shop, we suspect conceals all manner of unspeakable practices within –  is doing a roaring trade.  Not only is it supporting 1,200 jobs in the area, it has secured an important contract with the US Department of Agriculture, presumably as part of that country’s long-standing interest in extraordinary rendition.  Excellent tidings, though before Mr Cameron had the chance to congratulate the pig-pulverisers of Preston, Mr Stuart added the dark caveat that our own dear Food Standards Agency is standing in the way of even greater export achievement to the Far East.

Fascinating stuff, not least because (and I am grateful to Mr Stuart’s website for this information), Preston is located “east of Hull”, and so we are bound to ask how much more to the far east can you get?  Presumably they are not trying to drop tins of treated trotter into the North Sea, or meet a hitherto unrecorded insatiable demand for pig pate on the Dogger Bank, which can only mean that it is our old friends in China who are anxious for a taste of the Humber’s potted porcine. Mr Cameron looked duly concerned and promised to send a minister from Ag & Fish (or DEFRA as we must now call it) along to sort the FSA, or perhaps it was Mr Stuart, out. The House relaxed.

Though for only as long as it took Ed Miliband to get to his feet. His arrival at the despatch box was greeted by extended cheers, mainly from the Labour benches, though the Tories soon enough cottoned on. As a way of saying here is a man who has screwed up royally in the last few weeks, so we had better offer Mr Loser some encouragement, the gesture couldn’t have been bettered. Undeterred, Mr Miliband proceeded to ask the Prime Minister about train fares.

 This was not in the sense of what you or I would understand as a question about rail tickets. Mr Miliband did not want to know whether the cheapest way of getting between London and Doncaster wasn’t a super-saver off-peak bargain bonus tracker , travelling via Abergavenny in the company of one or more Hindus with a student railcard. However, it might just as well have been the question for the subsequent exchanges told us that, in common with most ticket-window conversations, neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition had much insight into the policies they were talking about.  Mr Cameron insisted that the capacity of the rail companies to charge what they damn well liked for a season ticket was the legacy of Labour’s policy, and Mr Miliband was equally insistent that it was not. 

One is tempted to side with the Prime Minister  in this on the grounds that it is in his interest to remember Labour’s policies, while it is equally in Mr Miliband’s to forget them. However, when the Prime Minister conceded that Labour policy had changed in its last year in office, a smile of triumph spread across the opposition leader’s features as broad as you would expect if he had just heard Lord Glasman had fallen into a sewerage inspection pit outside the Palace of Westminster. Later analysis by impartial UN observers suggested that it may well have been Mr Cameron who was indeed correct. However, by that time the two leaders had moved on to agreeing about Scottish independence, a moment of consensus across the despatch box that was as rare as it was chilling.

And so on to Sir Roger Gale, the Tory who represents North Thanet, who also had trains on his mind. Sir Roger was pleased that the Government was going to build a fast railway line between London and Birmingham – as pleased as anyone might be expected to be who knows the tracks won’t be going through his back garden – but wanted to know why, if HS2 was going ahead, HS1 was being neglected. By this he meant the line that runs fairly quickly from London to Ashford in Kent before slowing to a bucolic meander in the vague direction of the Channel Tunnel.

Sir Roger seemed to be asking for a high speed spur so as to sweep the sleek bullet trains towards his own Kent coast patch. That the geniuses of transport policy haven’t yet got round to making their top priority cutting journey times to Margate down to six minutes may not surprise the rest of us, but it is not for nothing that Sir Roger received the knighthood long overdue him in the new year’s list, for undiminished loyalty to his constituency.