Xi Who Must Be Obeyed

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The Chinese President arrives in the Land of the Three Kingdoms….

The President of the People’s Republic of China flew in to the Land of the Three Kingdoms on Tuesday and promptly acquiesced in the proposition that a new golden era was developing between these two geostrategic blocks. “Although China and the UK are located at either end of the Eurasian continent, we have a long shared deep mutual affection”, President Xi Jingpin declared, thus displaying imaginative licence equally towards both history and geography. Two places on the opposite side of the world with a background of Cold War frigidity and colonial suspicion would be nearer the mark, but old China hands were nonetheless impressed. We are used to understanding the significance of the Golden Era to Sino-British relations purely in terms of the quality of its spring rolls and chicken chow mein.

President Xi landed in London, otherwise the kingdom of the Emperor Bo Jo, although the Emperor himself had taken himself off to the land of China’s old enemy Japan. He had gone there for the traditional purpose of making trouble for his great rival, the Lord of the Middle Kingdom, Flam Cam. In this instance this was done by reporting that the Japanese would regard it as a matter of no consequence should the Three Kingdoms divorce themselves from that part of the Eurasian continent currently held beneath the tyrannical sway of evil Prince Eu. Flam Cam was undeflected from his main purpose for the week, which was finding as much of the Three Kingdoms that his visitor could buy. In the matter of negotiating future relations with Prince Eu, Flam Cam follows the teaching of Confucius that it does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

In the course of his peregrinations around the Middle Kingdom, the Chinese president, known also as Xi Who Must Be Obeyed, met many strange people, among them the Queen and Prince
Philip as well as Cor Byn, a bearded sage who introduced him to his mystical Doctrine of Disinterested Leadership. This holds that the leader need not concern himself with the actions of his followers, safe in the knowledge that at some point dark forces, mustered by an organizing spirit who goes by the name of Mo Men Tum, will gather them up and slaughter them in their constituencies.

Cor Byn  spoke earnestly to Xi about political prisoners, though whether he was protesting about the present or picking up tips for the future was not revealed. The President had little time to find out in any case since he was whisked off by Flam Cam for a plate of fish and chips – a delicacy that he had especially requested – served in a pub where Lord Cam had once performed the famous Ceremony of the Forgotten Daughter. The pair also signed a pact on cybersecurity. Under the terms of this agreement Lord Cam agreed never ever to try to hack into China’s national security database in return for Xi consenting to like at least 50% of his posts on Facebook.

Travelling north with the words of Ber Cow ringing in his ears – a minor scolding over human rights, which is as much a Westminster rite of passage as a serious impediment – President Xi arrived in the third and final segment of the Three Kingdoms. This is the land presided over by the dynasty known as the Northern Wei. Flam Cam made the journey with him, announcing somewhat improbably, that the Chinese had bought into the Wei of the Powerhouse, which was thereby “unstoppable” as a result. For all Flam Cam’s Ham Flam, everyone knows that in these distant reaches it is Chairman Osborne whose writ is law. It was revealed that he had fought hand to hand with the notorious Brummy Triads for the privilege of bringing Xi to Manchester. Sure enough, Chairman Osborne was on hand to present his visitor with a football signed by the Manchester United football team and to demonstrate to him the rudiments of the marital art that the Chairman has perfected known as Hard Hat. It was no doubt with some relief that the President flew back to Beijing, safe in the knowledge that there will soon be direct flights from Manchester for the many thousands who will be no doubt eager to make the same journey.

Chairman Osborne did not get it all his own way. Down in Westminster, his tax credits policy was being denounced by MPs of all parties, chief among them Heidi Allen, a Tory backbencher making a long-delayed maiden speech. It is Ms Allen who revealed that she has fantasies about Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin wrestling naked from the waist up, though her opening effort in the chamber was mercifully denuded of such grotesque imagery. “I chose the blue team”, she declared, imperiously explaining her journey into politics, and in such a manner that it was clear the blue team should consider itself jolly lucky to have been thus chosen. But the blue team had let her down, electing to go for narrow-minded fiscal rectitude over the compassionate conservatism that she favoured. Speaking up for narrow minded fiscal rectitude, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands, pointedly ignored Ms Allen’s contribution in his winding-up, though she found herself warmly praised from the opposition’s lists. MPs on all sides meanwhile bridled at her implication that the reason she had delayed speaking there for so long was that she regarded the House of Commons a pointless waste of time and oxygen. Out of the mouths of babes and astrophysicists.

Chairman Osborne will be taking notes and one suspects that when the War of the Three Kingdoms reaches its zenith, Ms Allen will be following the path of Bo Jo. It is unlikely though that the Chairman will have time to extract an immediate revenge . Next week a trade delegation from Brazil will be arriving and he and Flam Cam will be unpacking their outrageous costumes and samba-ing to the airport.




Fiscal Ineptitude

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A bad week for John McDonnell and a warning for Alex Salmond…

“I suppose”, said John McDonnell in the House of Commons on Wednesday, “I should deal straightforwardly with the u-turn”. There was a small murmur of assent from behind Labour’s shadow chancellor – for there are a tiny few in the House of Commons who wish him well – and all around the far larger sound of MPs stocking up on schadenfraude for a man about to abase himself before them. The u-turn was “embarrassing”, said Mr McDonnell, and in case anyone was willing to insist otherwise, he repeated the word five times in total. Mrs Thatcher did three “no’s” from her side of the House; Mr McDonnell had five “embarrassings”. Numerical disadvantage notwithstanding, one feels that, in poker terms, Mrs Thatcher’s was the stronger hand.

Mr McDonnell ploughed on. It was no bad thing, he claimed, “for politicians to show a little humility”. This is one of those propositions that is put only to or by people who need desperately for it to be true. Just as you only say “looks don’t matter” to ugly children, so the Venn diagram of politicians contending that humility and contrition are no bad things in politics overlaps completely with that of those who have covered themselves in a layer stupidity and set light to it with the torch of incompetence.

The shadow chancellor was, of course, referring to his decision to march Labour MPs into the lobby against George Osborne’s “fiscal charter”, having said two weeks ago that the Party would support it. Mr McDonnell deployed the classic “when circumstances change I change my mind’” argument to justify his volte face, except that it wasn’t at all clear what circumstances had actually changed. He was more effective in detailing for the Commons how Mr Osborne had treated his previous charters and fiscal pledges with the same sort of cynical disdain that the Regency buck he is supposed to resemble would have treated a tavern wench. Yet activity on the Osborne cynical disdain front has not noticeably spiked in the last couple of weeks. The Chancellor has been no more or less shameless than normal in ignoring inconvenient truths about his fiscal record. His opposite number may have a point about the record, but it is not a point that does him any good in explaining away his own humiliating car crash.

Outside the Chamber, Mr McDonnell tried another tack. He had been, he said, trying to out Osborne Osborne. It is a good thing he hadn’t attempted this inside the chamber, since to have claimed that he was out Rt Hon Member for Tattoning the Rt Hon Member for Tatton would have meant that he could still in there now, with Diane Abbott fetching him sandwiches. By this time pretty much no one was listening to the shadow chancellor in any case. Most Labour MPs caught the new instructions, but a sizeable minority abstained in the vote, giving a large Commons majority for Mr Osborne’s contrived idea of legislative fiscal handcuffs (a idea so stupid, incidentally, that it was nicked from Gordon Brown).  Those abstaining in the vote included Tristram Hunt and Liz Kendall, emblems of the vanquished Blairites. Those briefing the press that the party leadership was incapable of finding Africa on a map of Africa was approaching epidemic proportions.

Throughout all this, Jeremy Corbyn has maintained a Zen-like calm. He has an odd style of leadership the Labour leader, that seems to include an almost total lack of regard for whether or not anyone is following. Important votes lie ahead for Labour on issues such as Syria and Trident and one gets the impression that, should his colleagues decide to cut corners and elect to nuke Damascus, Mr Corbyn would do very little except sit on the front bench and muse upon the peculiar ways in which the democratic cookie crumbles. Rarely could such a large mandate to lead have been given accompanied by so little appetite for using it. Meanwhile, his Party is struggling to find a way even to agree on how they should disagree.
It is little wonder that the Labour Party under Corbyn is so royally sneered at from the far north. The SNP, gathering to round off the conference season in Aberdeen (and in the process incurring the wrath of Mr Speaker, who is rather like a public school headmaster when boys come back late from skiing after Christmas in his disapproval of term-time absence), mocked a party “divided and in disarray”. This suits the Scottish Nationalists even more than its suits the Conservatives south of the border, for while Labour is supposedly the loyal opposition, that very phrase is an oxymoron to the SNP brain. Disagreement with the nationalist narrative is regarded as at best a regrettable eccentricity, and at worst an act of brtrayal comparable to the massacre at Glencoe. “Welcome to North Korea” said a Scottish journalist greeting a colleague from down south at the Aberdeen conference. The comparison is an unfair one, of course: after all, the two places have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the possession of nuclear weapons.

There are, however, parallel signs of a leadership cult. Kim Il Sturgeon addressed the conference not once but twice. She used her platforms to warn her party not to expect a headlong rush towards a second referendum, though Scots will certainly demand one should the UK as a whole opt to get out of the EU. Dressing her position up as a matter of high principle – the “no” vote in 2014 must be respected etc – Ms Kim’s caution also has the useful effect of differentiating her stance from that of Alex Salmond. The previous Great Leader, having failed with one referendum, now wants the Scots to try again as soon as possible. Otherwise, Scotland will go to the dogs, which is where the real Kim Jong Un’s uncle is rumoured to have gone after his nephew had him executed. Everyone’s favourite Scots Nats uncle, Mr Salmond has been warned.

Cameron Unplugged

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We are the builders was George Osborne’s message to the Tory conference. David Cameron has set himself up as the interior designer of Conservatism.

The Tories were generally held to have had a good week of it in Manchester, a city that turned out to welcome them in the customary manner by throwing eggs and calling them scum. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to turn the place into an abstraction that he likes to call the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, yet it is to be hoped that this transformation, if it occurs, will not sap the area’s traditional lack of reverence and earthy sense of fun. The aim is to make the locals wealthy, so that in 20 years they can come along, call their southern visitors plebs and attack them with sidewinder missiles. One Tory lady proposed that in future the conference should be held somewhere less easily accessed by public transport – presumably this will become easier as the Parliament progresses – but in 20 years the protesters will be arriving in their Land Rovers anyway. It is for this kind of vision, aligned to a poltical cunning untroubled by scruple, that makes Mr Osborne the front-runner to succeed David Cameron when the time comes.

Mr Osborne is said to have had a good week too, despite giving a rather plodding speech, as it seems did his rival Boris Johnson though not, perhaps, the third of the triumvirate of main pretenders, Theresa May. The Education Secretary, who burst out of her chrysalis to reveal her own leadership aspirations a week ago, discovered that she needs to change her call sign from NiMo to NoMo. Other Cabinet ministers kept a lower profile, although Jeremy Hunt made some of the early running in the ‘Does My Week Look Good in This?’ stakes by allegedly declaring that the Brits should stop moping about losing their working tax credits and start putting in the same hours as the Chinese. Thus he incurred the wrath of the liberal press for combining insensitivity with soft racism. If only he had said that the Brits should start working as hard as he thinks junior doctors ought to, he could have been acquitted of at least one of the charges.

This allocation of good and bad weeks is a largely arbitrary matter, got up by political journalists who need to persuade us that, dog-like, they are capable of responding to sounds from the political register not even audible, let alone intelligible, to normal ears. It is rare that a politician emerges from his or her party conference week either floating off the pier with a knife through the neck, or being carried back to London on a litter borne aloft by adoring sea scouts and at the head of an army of 50,000 acolytes. This being so we are happy to allow professionals to rummage through the runes on our behalf and tell us exactly what we ought to think happened. We require of them neither particular originality nor consistency. Thus, unfairly to pick on one example, last week Mr James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator, told us that it was all over for Boris; yet a couple of jokes and a standing ovation later and this powerful, baffling, figure (Boris that is) is in line for a ‘very big job’ in Mr Cameron’s Cabinet once he has dispensed with his duties at City Hall. It is not as if the jokes were particularly good. For BoJo they were decidedly so-so.

In similar vein, the untrained reader wading through David Cameron’s own speech would find that it resembled nothing so much as a loosely assembled assortment of Tweets that rumbled towards an eventual conclusion distinguished by an awful pun about the ‘great British take-off’. This was somewhat ironic since the speech’s one stand-out line was about how Britain and Twitter are not the same thing. There was also a fairly effective denunciation of the ‘Britain-hating’ Jeremy Corbyn, although it is was vilification you were up for, nothing quite matched Theresa May’s indictment of the Home Secretary’s immigration record. Mrs May is, of course, the Home Secretary, but party conference speeches are about the broad landscape of emotion, rather than detail. Mr Michael Heseltine was able unerringly to locate the clitoris of the Conservative Party, but he did not find it with a description of the finer workings of the rate support grant.

To return to Mr Cameron, what we were pleased to learn from the experts was that his speech represented a major re-locating of the Prime Minister’s id, so that, unfettered now by the influence of Liberal Democrats in his government, he is suddenly able to be more liberal. Toby Helm, another of our guides through the maze, who toils at this work for the Observer, called the speech “a highly strategic move” in which Mr Cameron was “saying the unthinkable”. Given that at one point in his speech he loosed off a mild sex gag in the direction of his wife, the PM might also have been thinking the unsayable, but we mustn’t be distracted again.

Let us instead concentrate on Mr Helm’s assessment what the Tory leader is up to. We have apparently entered the era of Cameron unplugged, his acoustic phase, in which an election victory has liberated the real social progressive to concentrate on making sure that we remember him for being sympathetic and imaginative. It is an appealing narrative and will last until the next one comes along. This, given the Prime Minister’s propensity for directional swerves, could well be for anything up to three weeks.

“We are the builders”, said George Osborne repeatedly in his speech. If the Chancellor is the builder, then the Prime Minister has styled himself as the interior designer. We must, however, wait to find out how exactly he proposes to arrange the furniture or choose the light fittings. Actual policy prescription was thin on the ground. There was, for example, a long passage in his speech when he described the difficulties that a young woman had been having getting a job until she changed her name to Elizabeth. What exactly was this job? Was she applying to be Queen? And what will now change under a Tory government to make it easier for people who are not called Elizabeth to get jobs in the future? We already have baked into our culture equality quotas, all-women shortlists and various other expressions of social engineering.. Mr Cameron, who may be many things, is not noticeably a small state Conservative, so perhaps a new regulatory authority, dedicated to name equality, is around the corner. The Conservative Party conference is not the time when we get told these things.

Equally anxious to discover the Prime Minister’s policy, the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, arrived at Chequers at the end of the week, to explore his intentions towards the European Union. By Sunday, a list of apparent UK asks had been leaked to the Sunday Telegraph. These will not satisfy British eurosceptics, and for all we know will not satisfy Mrs Merkel either. Nevertheless, she seemed to head back home in a happy mood. Then again, the nature of her emissions on the topic may have been distorted by the fact that they were being observed at the time.

On Being Nice….

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As Jeremy Corbyn and his party conference bonded, the last of Labour’s grand old men passed away…..

One’s text this week is taken from an essay entitled ‘The New World Disorder’, published in 1996, at the height of the Major terror. In it, the author argues passionately in favour of taxing things of which he disapproves – cross-border financial transactions, arms sales, pollution – in order to raise money to give to things of which he approves, chiefly the United Nations. There are warm words for the idea of the Tobin Tax – already 20 years old even then – that would clobber financial transactions from one currency into another (the concept has since been extended to include anything that bankers or speculators do) with the waspish observation that this idea attracted at least the semi-sponsorship of George Bush Senior’s regime before being killed off under Clinton (Clintonian closeness to Wall Street is not a new thing). Scroll forward to 2013 and the financial transactions tax has the backing of most of Europe (though now the cash is needed to pay down the deficit, sod the UN), but not, surprise, surprise, the UK. The US, a couple of presidents on, is still distinctly unkeen.

So, who was the author of the pro-Tobin article in 1996? Jeremy Corbyn? John McDonnell? Diane Abbott? The last is a fairly unlikely option admittedly, but three weeks into the project and candid Corbynistas are still difficult to identify. The correct answer is, in any case, none of these, but Denis Healey, whose death at the weekend permitted a glance back into an earlier era of hand-to-hand combat across the attenuated frontier of Labour’s soul. There was in the washed-out library footage of Labour’s conferences past, so far as one could see, no sign of the young beard himself, but plenty to remind us that delegates to these events like nothing better than to yell at their elders whose lack of purity they abhor. Mr Healey was advised ay the time by the conference organsisers to remove his bushy eyebrows before venturing outside the secure zone, for fear of being identified and beaten up.

It comes as something as an irony therefore that a man despised by the Labour left can speak out in favour of the Tobin Tax but that the men who are supposedly their idols do not. Those who came to Mr McDonnell’s speech on Monday anxious to discover what astringent redistributive tax measures he intended to apply went away unenlightened and, for the fiscally masochistic among us, disappointed. We learned instead that Mr Corbyn had been giving his shadow chancellor lessons in how to be nice for, unexpectedly, the Labour leader has emerged from the last few weeks of shock and turmoil as one of the gentlest and most warm-hearted people in British politics. He is a man from whom not even the slugs on his vegetable patch should recoil in terror.

In his own speech Mr Corbyn promised a “kinder, gentler politics” and promptly made good on that pledge by announcing at the end of the week that there was no way in which he would ever blow up half the planet by pressing the nuclear button. This definitely qualifies as considerate, so shame that such a supremely benign gesture should be greeted by half his shadow cabinet as the act of an unelectable nit-wit who had just eradicated the entire raison d’etre of nuclear deterrence. Since forcing his conference to come to a decision on Trident might test the boundaries of affability, Mr Corbyn was content not to push the point. At some juncture, however, it may come to pass that the Labour conference votes to retain nuclear weapons while the Labour leader announces that he would never use them anyway. This is a situation known to military planners and geo-political strategists as a complete Horlicks, although a complete Horlicks would presumably accord with how Mr Corbyn would like us to think of him.

Polly Toynbee, the famous Guardian columnist, was, for one, sold, likening the Labour leader’s position on Trident to something that Christ might have said. Those of his supporters who have taken to referring to Mr Corbyn as ‘JC’ have clearly not toiled in vain. Ms Toynbee, a former president of the British Humanist Association, may not believe in Jesus Christ, but she certainly believes in Jeremy Corbyn, although not, one gathers, in his ability to win a general election. Addressing his disciples in the Brighton hall, Mr Corbyn called upon the man who did to intercede on behalf of a Saudi Arabian dissident, for people to be civil to each other on Twitter and for the ‘commentariat’ to start understanding the ‘new politics’ that he claims for his stock-in-trade. That the great majority of the public care not one whit for persecuted Saudis, about who is rude to whom on the internet or about newspapers that write disobliging things about politicians, suggests that, for all his priestly behaviour that Ms Toynbee so admires, Mr Corbyn is going to concentrate on preaching to the converted. Like Ed Miliband’s last year, his speech neglected to mention the deficit: unlike Mr Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn meant it. At least he is the witting author of his own unelectability and in that small measure if nothing else can be considered as an advance upon his predecessor.

The Shadow Chancellor, to be fair, did have a plan for the deficit. Shunning talk of the Tobin Tax, the maximum wage, and other Labour fiscal nasties, he concentrated upon the simple belief that the books could be balanced if only Amazon and Starbucks start to pay up their taxes. Luckily for him, this is the sort of cretinous simplicity that Labour delegates not only like to hear but actually believe. In the same way their Tory counterparts feel sure that the £2 billion deficit in the NHS budget that Jeremy Hunt is apparently trying to hide would disappear if only we brought back matron, and especially if we could persuade her to turn out on a Sunday as well. Conference delegates of whatever party are not the brightest creatures: this is why the organisers often shun the seaside locations these days, for fear that the punters turning up will get confused with donkeys.

Thus the Tories are going to Manchester this week, glowing within the carapace of their own complacency and ready to apply themselves to the question of who should be their next leader. There is, as yet, neither vacancy nor contest, though that did not stop Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, all but declaring herself to be a candidate. Ms Morgan appears to have noticed that, with the withdrawal of Harriet Harman from front line politics, there is now a vacancy for someone who believes that being a woman is not only an important qualification for election to high office, but pretty much the only one you need. If there are particular reasons why Ms Morgan should lead the Conservative Party, she has yet to formulate what these are.

Though of a different persuasion to Jeremy Corbyn – the Education Secretary is an energetic herald of her own Christianity – Ms Morgan, or ‘NiMo’ as apparently her acolytes call her, shares with him a simple belief in the power of being pleasant. Indeed she was sent to the education department to be agreeable to the teachers whose delicate sensibilities had been upset by Michael Gove berating them in correctly grammatical English. As she heads for Manchester, she should look out for Sally Kincaid, an activist for the National Union of Teachers who promised that the Tories would be ‘cacking their pants’ as she and her fellow TUC protesters ‘rip down the fences’ on behalf of the anti-austerity cause. She was doubtless unborn at the time when he was in his pomp, but Ms Kincaid is precisely the sort of wild-eyed fury that Denis Healy would have recognised, yelling into his face that he had sold out socialism and accusing the former beach master at Anzio of cowardice. How much nicer to remember the old Chancellor, as the BBC showed us in his retirement, pottering around his Sussex farmhouse on the back of a ride-on lawnmower. These old socialists knew how to live. These days they have all got allotments and NiMos.