That was the week….

Leave a comment

At Prime Minister’s questions, the acting Labour leader Harriet Harman told David Cameron that he should have more class. This was a serious breach of etiquette. Ms Harman, though the niece of an earl, and therefore superior in rank to the son of a stockbroker, nevertheless went to a less celebrated public school than the Prime Minister. She should therefore have a care advising him on his manners. The Etonian Cameron, who had been crowing in a Bullingdonish sort of way about the EU referendum, looked suitably shocked. It was observed that, for the rest of the session, he was noticeably more sober in his deportment, if not necessarily more classy in his answers. He started to treat the questions put to him as if they might be honest attempts at eliciting information. This is a very bad idea. The moment the protagonists start to treat Prime Minister’s questions as an opportunity for finding out answers, the whole point will be lost. We might as well pretend that the purpose of Trooping the Colour is to give Princess Anne some exercise, or that hot air ballooning is a viable form of public transport.

This episode may also be bad news for Andy Burnham, since it could reinforce the hypothesis that Mr Cameron would be more discomfited by facing a woman opponent. The Prime Minister, it is held, has a woman problem. The evidence for this is patchy. Though a vigorous champion of being allowed to choose a man for his mate, Mr Cameron freely opted for a woman in that department and has at least as good a record as his recent predecessors for appointing women to his Cabinet. It is also reported that it is difficult to open a cupboard inside 10 Downing Street without finding a female adviser falling out of it.

The charge sheet on the other hand records the time when the Prime Minister advised a woman on the Labour front bench to “calm down dear” and the moment when he appeared to wander off into an embarrassed reverie about Nadine Dorries’ carnal needs as she was asking him a question about the status of his coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It has always seemed to this observer that the business with Nadine Dorries was more in the minds of other people than in the Prime Minister’s own. His put down of Angela Eagle, meanwhile, though vulnerable to being deemed offensive by those apt to be offended by such things, was no more unsavoury than Alex Salmond’s, who recently told the Conservative minister Anna Soubry to “behave yourself woman”. In the event Mr Salmond’s scorn was treated with considerably more indulgence than Mr Cameron’s.   Mr Salmond, you see, is not thought to have a woman problem. He is therefore allowed the occasional foray over the border into the realms of misogyny. Mr Salmond has a Tory problem, although that is generally regarded more as a social necessity than a personal failing.

Nor is it a defence for Mr Cameron to say that he has a Tory problem too, especially when he continues to work so assiduously to cultivate it. Bloody-minded Conservatives are, to a very large extent, like earthworms in being part of nature’s considered strategy. Yet they are also nurtured by a Prime Minister, who seems to go out of his way to fertilise their capriciousness with his contempt.

His contribution towards this effort this week was to announce that members of his Cabinet wishing to campaign for Britain to leave the EU must resign in order to do so. Infuriating though this was to members of his party – including members of his Cabinet – this does not seem like such an outrageous position to adopt. It is generally what collective Cabinet responsibility is held to mean, except that it was punctured on the one occasion in recent history that really matters, when Harold Wilson permitted his Cabinet to be for or against European membership at the time of the last referendum in 1976. Mr Wilson allowed his Cabinet to split in order to hold his party together, while Mr Cameron seems to want to hold his Cabinet together in order to cause his party to split.

Realizing that this makes Harold Wilson the rather better politician, Mr Cameron took 48 hours to change his mind, although convention dictates that it was necessary for him to claim that the media had got him wrong in the first place. The bond of togetherness, it seems, would only necessarily apply to the period when the PM was negotiating terms with the EU: in the subsequent referendum, the latitude given to Cabinet ministers will be subject to the Prime Minister’s all-important what-he-thinks-he-can-get-away-with test. We will have to wait and see how this turns out. At the current rate of progress, however, this is not a Prime Minister who is going to be able to get away with very much.

Unsurprisingly, the media did not take too well either to Mr Cameron’s policy gymnastics, or to his blaming them for the confusion, and started letting it be known that perhaps the PM had been too relaxed when he had given them the original briefing. This had taken place during a trip to Bavaria, which is where Mrs Thatcher liked to go on holiday, but is not otherwise a place obviously associated with hanging out and chilling. David Cameron though has a relaxation problem to go with his women problem: it is not that he cannot switch off, rather that he flicks his mental resources to the up position somewhat too readily. For this already over laid-back Prime Minister to appear too relaxed when explaining his policy to journalists, presumably he must have been talking to them while wearing swimming trunks and carrying a surfboard. There is no evidence that this was the case, which lays open the possibility that Mr Cameron was not too casual in his speaking, but too casual in his thinking.

He should try learning from his Chancellor, George Osborne, who continues to want to pass laws that impose hair-shirted discipline upon himself. This week Mr Osborne announced in his Mansion House speech that he would legislate for permanent budget surpluses, a piece of contrived stringency immediately denounced by the libertines over at the Guardian as Micawber economics. The Government is also passing a law banning so-called legal highs: whether this will be extended to outlawing those manufactured moments of ecstasy enjoyed by Conservative backbenchers when they vote aganst David Cameron has not yet been made clear.

That was the week…

Leave a comment

With the most important issue in the middle east left still unresolved, Tony Blair stunned the world by announcing this week that he is no longer to be the region’s peace envoy. Whether the band of psychopathic madmen who are currently raging across Syria and Iraq are properly called ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or some other name entirely must therefore, it seems, be a matter that Mr Blair’s successor will have to sort out.

At the time of writing, however, it was not even clear whether the “quartet” – that is the informal alliance of the EU, US, UN and Russia that notionally employed Mr Blair – will bother to appoint a successor at all. This is a dangerous signal to send to the former Prime Minister, whose ego has already attained a size whereby disposing of it when it is no longer required will be like clearing up after Chernobyl.  He will take it as a sign of being an impossible act to follow, although other interpretations are available. Given what has happened to peace in the middle east in the eight years since Mr Blair became its champion, it may be time to consider a war envoy.  Or perhaps Russia has simply got fed up with being teased over the irony of it sending a peace envoy anywhere. Russia had objected to Mr Blair’s appointment in the first place, presumably on the grounds that Vladimir Putin was the most ironically-qualified for the job.

The naming of the middle eastern madmen came up in the debate on the Queen’s Speech on Monday. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, agreed with a Rehman Chishti, a Conservative backbencher, that the proper term was not, in fact, any of the above, but “Daesh”, which is the Arabic name for them. Mr Hammond told Mr Chishti that he would call them Daesh, or perhaps ISIL, showing that the grand Foreign Office tradition of hedging your bets is not quite dead. Mr Hammond’s French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, calls them “Daesh cut-throats”, but Mr Hammond won’t go that far, and a good thing too: bad things tend to happen when British and French foreign policy become too closely aligned.

It was his ability, in contrast to the Foreign Secretary’s, not to get bogged down in details like this, that not only earned Mr Blair the envoy gig in the first place, but the right to do it while simultaneously charging gullible audiences £100,000 a go for giving a speech explaining what he was doing. Mr Hammond has never come close to earning £100,000 for a speech, although, on the evidence on Monday, there may be a market for him for that kind of fee in return for a guarantee that he won’t make one. The Foreign Secretary’s ponderous oration was by way of being an extremely long Abide with Me for the cup-final that eventually started when Boris Johnson made his second maiden speech. Eschewing the opportunity to limn the delights of either Uxbridge or South Rusilip (it is a regrettable fact that the volcanoes and concert halls all start east of Rayners Lane), Mr Johnson contented himself with insincerely wishing the Prime Minister well in his European negotiations and pointing out that it would be no great dishonour to walk away empty-handed. By this he meant, of course, that the honour would all be Mr Johnson’s to lead the “no” campaign should the Prime Minister’s hands remain innocent of European concessions.  This is a prospect that Mr Johnson’s supporters were eagerly talking up by the end of the week.

It is impossible to assess whether David Cameron is making much progress through what Mr Johnson called his “European schmoozathon”. Some obliging remarks out of Berlin one day are immediately cancelled out by the sound of harsh derision from Poland on the next. In Eurovision terms, we are still in the very early stages of the voting, with half the participants yet to register a point, and the certainty that the Spanish will find a way of shafting us still to come.  It is entirely possible that the final result – though it is not at all clear, not least to Mr Cameron, what a “result” means in this context – will come down to the famous “shy Lithuanian” factor. Europe’s swing states could end up backing the Prime Minister’s position only at the final moment and in the confidentiality of the ballot box. The French will then spend the next six months arguing among themselves why they lost.

Back at home a group of 50  MPs have formed themselves into a bloc called “Conservatives for Britain” to make life difficult for their leader. Mr Hammond has already warned that what they want – i.e. complete sovereignty over British law-making – is not realistic. We would have to leave the EU altogether to achieve that, the Foreign Secretary warned, slowly arriving at the point.  The Prime Minister, however, appears chillaxed, to the extent that stopping foreign migrants getting their hands on British benefits no longer appears to be the animating goal of his existence. With his head turned towards even greater things, Mr Cameron went off to the G7 summit in Bavaria demanding international action to stamp out global corruption. There is a degree of peevishness underlying this objective: the Americans have only just learned the rules of soccer, yet in their typically brash way they have set about having arrested the people who run the sport. The PM may not have got Sepp Blatter, but why should be not be the one who brings Robert Mugabe to book or Kim Jong Il?

It is suddenly fashionable to regard Mr Cameron as a political colossus – a politician more in charge of the political biosphere than any PM since the former peace envoy himself. There is a danger that his own ego will expand accordingly and this at a time when he will inevitably be thinking about his next job. As soon as somebody thinks up the idea of appointing an International Backsheesh Czar, Mr Cameron is going to be right up there in the lead applying for it.

That was the week…

Leave a comment

The week’s big set-piece political moment saw a very grand and aristocratic lady carrying out with her usual aplomb a ceremonial role of which, though it is familiar and recurring, she never seems to tire. One refers, of course, to Harriet Harman to whom the job periodically falls of leading the Labour Party in an acting capacity, while its real leader is indisposed. On this occasion the indisposition has been self-inflicted, although unkind observers might point out that Ed Miliband makes a better Labour leader now he has stopped doing the job than before he did so. Ms Harman, by contrast, is a highly accomplished acting leader: though not a politician to whom compliments readily cling, she is someone whom most people would agree makes a good caretaker. This is both out of sympathy to her failed ambitions, as well as comfort at the certainty that there is a time when she will have to stop doing it.

Empowered by her acting status, Ms Harman has ruled out the eccentric idea that when Labour do get round to electing a proper leader –which will not be until September – he or she should come attached to a three year expiry date. Such is the confidence currently coursing through the people’s party that many of its members cannot trust themselves to find someone to lead them who will be good for more than 36 months. It is true that this idea originated with Tristan Hunt, who must therefore calculate that three years is what it will take for his party to become reconciled to the idea of being led by a man called Tristan. This is a risky strategy since it is evidently Labour’s destiny to be led once again by a man called Keir. Now that the former Director of Public Prosecutions is ensconced for Holborn & St Pancras, someone fitting that description is waiting in the wings. When the time comes, Keir versus Tristan will be the ultimate old against new Labour battle. Meanwhile, the party must go through a period of agonised introspection. This can get to be too much of a good thing. Another of Ms Harman’s decisions has been to announce a “truth and reconciliation commission” under the former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett. Appalling though the failure of the country to elect a Labour government undoubtedly was, there must be some doubt as to whether it is a tragedy to rank against 46 years of apartheid rule in South Africa.

The full horror of the Tory alternative was unveiled in words scripted for Her Majesty during the ritualised splendour of the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. Absent from this year’s ceremony was its most cherished aspect, which is one of Dennis Skinner’s plodding remarks, made during a brief moment as Black Rod clears his throat. Once uttered, these are annually fabricated by the press into the belief that Oscar Wilde comes back to us once a year in the counter-intuitive guise of the Beast of Bolsover. This year, it seems that Mr Skinner could not conjure up the appropriate aperçu. Either that or there was a Scottish Nationalist sitting on him.

Ms Harman had warned the nationalists against tangling with the Beast, though that was not the most remarkable part of her speech responding to the Address. That honour must surely go to the astonishing revelation that once upon a time she fancied Simon Burns, a former Conservative minister, now principally known for his serial antagonism towards Speaker Bercow. Mr Burns, said Harriet, had once reminded her of a dashing Robert Redford, a persona which, we can be almost certain, has never occurred to anybody else in the world, including Mrs Burns. Anyway, since Ms Harman casts glances towards Mr Burns, and Mr Burns has the hots for Hillary Clinton, we have the makings of an intriguing plot developing here. All it takes could be for Mrs Clinton to be secretly in love with Harriet Harman and Shakespeare would get a three act comedy out of this. This notion is not as outlandish as it sounds: after all Mrs Clinton and Ms Harman have in common the belief that being female is, by itself, entitlement to high office, and if that is not enough to bind them together, what is?

Tagged by the Prime Minister as a “one nation Queen’s Speech from a one nation Government”, the embellished list of legislative proposals contained nothing to overwhelm us with its audacity. The Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill will, it seems, create two million more jobs by the end of the Parliament which is an excellent idea. It is amazing really that Ramsey McDonald never thought of passing one of those in the 1930s. Now that they have an unfettered grip on power, the Tories will also pass a law to prevent them from putting up taxes. Time was when the Conservative Party felt that it had enough self-restraint on such matters without making for itself a statutory strait-jacket. However, in order to demonstrate to the people that he “gets” their abiding distrust of politicians, Mr Cameron has to show that the abiding distrust is something he fully shares himself. Her Majesty should though be disappointed since there was nothing in the Speech about passing a law preventing the Tories from abolishing the monarchy.

The much-vaunted promise of a “British Bill of Rights” must wait another day, since it is now down to clever Michael Gove to find out how on earth that would work. Magna Carta having struggled on for eight hundred years, its shift will be extended for at least another year. One must feel sorry though for the Barons of Runnymede, since there is no one to make their case that, by allowing Gove to tinker with their legacy, he will pitch us back into an era when the King can pop round without so much as a by your leave and nick your Nintendo. There is, of course, no shortage of lawyers and lobbyists telling us that this would be the effect of liberating the stewardship of our human rights from the European court.

Those who wish to liberate Britain from Europe full stop will have to vote “no” on the ballot sheet in the referendum proposal being advanced by Mr Cameron. This is held to be a major psychological barrier, and thus a boost for those who want to keep us in the European Union. Unconvinced that this will be enough, forces are beginning to muster in the House of Lords to amend the legislation so as to extend the referendum franchise to children, foreigners, former members of the European Commission and anyone else who can be relied upon to vote “yes”.