Christmas Post

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The season ends with a no-score draw in Brussels…. 

The political term broke up in a manner reminiscent of the way in which most of it had been conducted – ie amid acrimony and bad feeling. Since most of the big issues have either been disposed of – we resolved to bomb ISIL in Syria and scrap tax credits – or can be parked for the new year, the parties decided to fall out about the main issue of the moment, which is, of course, Christmas. At PMQs, Mr Cameron made a point of wishing everybody ‘Happy Christmas’ in a way as to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn was one of those weasel-worded wassailers who resort to secular circumlocutions such as ‘seasons greetings’ or, God-forbid, ‘winterval’. I did actually say ‘Christmas’ Mr Corbyn shot back sniffily, and the record shows that he was nothing if not correct about that.

The PM’s little dig might have been a reference to the Labour leader’s Christmas card, which was notoriously free of wise men or virgins in favour of a bike stuck next to a phone box in the snow. There was plenty of interpretation available as to what this meant, to go with the obvious ribaldry. For this sketch, however, the bike in British political iconography is symbolic of either Norman Tebbit or Boris Johnson. Neither of these figures is presumably what Mr Corbyn intended to invoke. It might have been the single traffic light in the background, stuck on red, that was supposed to capture our attention, representing a vision of what life in a Corbyn-led Britain would be like.

The party leaders are, of course, all far too aware of modern sensibilities to include actual references to Christmas in their greetings cards, though Mr Cameron came closest. In his card, he poses on the doorstep at Number Ten next to Mrs Cameron in a dress that, in colour at least, if not in pattern, strongly suggested the Virgin Mary. (To be clear, it was Mrs Cameron who was wearing the dress.) The UKIP leader Nigel Farage meanwhile announced sternly that Christmas is a Christian festival – causing Douglas Carswell immediately to re-examine his views on this matter – though his own card was some tediously jokey reference to the battle over Brexit. Not that one would want to think that Mr Farage is obsessed or anything. His bête noire – one likes to dabble daringly with the politically incorrect when discussing UKIP – Mr Carswell, said that it was time for his party leader to resign. This is all very well, but Mr Farage has tried resigning once before, and so disliked the experience that his time in the political wilderness lasted under how long you would imagine he’d be able to stay off the beer and fags. These are straitened times for the media, and you can hardly expect them to send along reporters and cameras to witness an event, the staying power of which might be rather less than the life expectancy of a badger on the M25.

Mr Carswell had also caused some minor annoyance to the Prime Minister at question time by asking him whether he was still pursuing the repatriation of social and employment law as part of his negotiations with the European Union. Like a good lawyer, Mr Carswell only asks questions to which he already knows the answer and the answer, of course, is that the Prime Minister is doing no such thing. Not that it matters: Euroscepticism is a discipline that revels in the mastery of obscure and mind-numbing detail that ordinary people care about as much as they do the number of craters on the moon. Eurosceptics must therefore continually prod themselves to remember to talk about things that people do care about, such as immigration. It is because Mr Farage is quite good at doing this that he manages to hang on at the head of the poisonous snake-pit that is the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Having disposed of both Mr Carswell and, earlier, Mr Corbyn, who initiated another one of those pointless exchanges of bombast about the NHS, the Prime Minister went to Brussels to discuss Britain’s demands for our continued participation in the European club. On this topic, Mr Cameron is widely regarded as the club bore, but since he also pays one of the largest subscriptions it is felt occasionally necessary to hear him out. According to press reports, the PM rescued his position on benefits for migrants with an impassioned 40 minute speech over dinner. This was a high risk strategy indeed for nothing should be generally allowed to get between a European leader and his dinner. In the end they agreed to a replay in February and presumably the matter will eventually have to be settled on penalties. This does not bode well for the Remain camp: Britain’s record in penalty competitions against the Germans is not a distinguished one.

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In Retreat

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David Cameron wants to find new ways of making Britain unattractive, though Jeremy Corbyn is well ahead of him there….

It took David Cameron six months from the Election to come up with his list of negotiating conditions for Britain to remain in the EU, and then less than six weeks for him to start disowning it. Absent for much of the week during another extended period of prancing across Mitteleurope, the PM returned to Britain apparently empty-handed. Wild rumours that the Italians were about to ride to the PM’s rescue turned out to be illusory and by the weekend Downing Street briefers were telling hacks that the Prime Minister was willing to be flexible on his key demand of benefits for migrants.

Or rather no benefits for migrants. It is one of the curiosities of British politics that while the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants us to believe that being on the social is a deeply unattractive option, the Prime Minister’s approach is posited on the assertion that across Europe, from the plains of Poland to the banks of the Danube, would-be immigrants are sniffing the air like Bisto kids and succumbing to the irresistible lure of Mr Beveridge’s legacy. The governments of these countries being in no mood to have a padlock put on the gravy, Mr Cameron has had to retreat. Young men of his class would once upon a time embark on the Grand Tour, spreading out across the capitals of Europe in search of adventure and fulfillment. At least they usually came back with syphilis,

The Prime Minister, say the briefers, remains keen to “unlock the political will to find a solution” and wants to explore with his fellow leaders other ideas for making Britain a less attractive place to come to. One would have thought that the weather, the food and the Christmas television schedules was enough, but in the spirit of helpfulness perhaps the PM might want to consider an induction programme for all new arrivals presided over by Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins. Either that or compulsory Stephen Fry. Mr Cameron himself has suggested a ban on semi-automatic weapons, though that must be about something else: not since the days of the trusty Lee Enfield has Britain been much of a name to conjur with when it comes to gun technology.

The assault on assault weapons may have had something to do with reports from earlier in the week that the Prime Minister had had a gun held to his head by the Conservative Party’s candidate for London mayor, Zac Goldsmith. Now, despite having a name that sounds like a sound effect from Star Wars, Mr Goldsmith has always struck one as more of a hippy ruminant than a violent extremist. It is, however, evident that he is moved to great passion by the impact of building a third runway at Heathrow Airport. It is more precisely the impact that a third runway would have on votes for Zac Goldsmith that incites the passion, but it was enough anyway to enable him to sneak past the police in Downing Street on Tuesday afternoon and threaten the Prime Minister. Within hours of the two men meeting, it had been announced that the promised decision on Heathrow was a decision not to decide anything until after the Mayoral elections are out of the way. At that point they will no doubt decide to write another report. Earlier that day Mr Goldsmith had told the Westminster lobby he regretted threatening the Prime Minister with a by-election in his marginal seat if there were a decision in favour of expanding Heathrow. Within hours of saying so, he was threatening the PM again, with or without the aid of semi-automatic weaponry.

If Tuesday was a bad day for the PM, how much worse for his Chancellor. Nadine Dorries, the renegade Tory who sits for mid-Bedfordshire, hit out, not for the first time, at poor George, implying that she might leave the Conservative Party if Mr Osborne became its leader. All along the hushed corridors of the Treasury came the sound of the Chancellor learning to live with this terrible news.

It would be unfair, albeit temptingly topical, to compare Ms Dorries to Donald Trump – she has not, so far as one is aware, called for Muslims to be excluded from Ampthill or Flitwick – but she shares with the wigged lunatic that identical hubristic obsession with being seen as plain spoken, commonsensical and the armour-clad slayer of political correctness. She may not have the most elevated mind, but she speaks it with the same enthusiasm that a Dobermann eats raw beefsteak.

On her mind at this time was that Mr Osborne should be excluded from one day becoming Prime Minister because had had come from a background of privilege and had gone to a good school. Had she ruled out Sajid Javid for being black or Ruth Davidson for being a lesbian, Ms Dorries could expect a visit from the police. What would otherwise be considered hate speech is, however, acceptable currency when it comes to dealing with nobs (or knobs for that matter). Mr Osborne, she said, had spent the last ten years in Parliament handing out sweeties, an uncomfortable metaphor, provoking as it does the image of the Chancellor hanging around the division lobbies in a mac that is a bit too short for him and offering to show the girls his deficit reduction plan.

Like Trump too, Mrs Dorries is a vereran of the television celebrity circuit – a briefer flirtation in her case, although her stint on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here two years ago caused her to lose the party whip for a while and cemented her falling out with the leadership of her party, whom she calls the posh boys. Her playing hookey to spend time in the jungle with the creepie-crawlies (though enough of Ant and Dec) was an entirely pointless exercise since the Commons is coming increasingly to resemble a talent show itself. Last week it was Hilary Benn who strode into the limelight to audition for the role of “the one who looks like they should be leading the Labour Party” and this week it was the turn of the shadow first minister Angela Eagle. Like Mr Benn’s last week, Ms Eagle’s turn at the dispatch box – in her case deputising for Mr Corbyn at PMQs – provoked five star reviews.

There was, in truth, more than an element of dog-walking-on-its-hind legs condescension in all the comments aimed at the effectiveness of Ms Eagle’s performance, though old Parliamentary hands claimed to have first spotted her talent for twinkle-eyed wit at business questions, the Parliamentary equivalent of a tough gig in the back room of a pub on the northern circuit. An objective observer would conclude that Osborne and Eagle pretty much matched each other sally for sally, and if it was Ms Eagle who came away with the louder cheers that is only because Labour backbenchers would have cheered Donald Trump, for no better reason than that he is not Jeremy Corbyn. The fact that Ms Eagle’s best joke – when she claimed to be reading out a letter from ‘Donald from Brussels’ – was some mild mickey-taking of the Labour leader himself made it all the more poignant.

That Mr Corbyn also had a tough week by now should go without saying. Heavy rain in Cumbria early on tested his pacifist convictions when it comes to flood defences, and by the end of the week he has being criticized heavily for attending the annual Christmas bash of the Stop The War coalition. STW is an organistion so extreme that even Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, has withdrawn from it. Mr Corbyn went along, though whether he dressed up as Father Christmas is unreported. Certainly, Santa’s modus operandi –the distribution of hand-outs paid for in a rather undefined fashion by other people – accords strongly with his socialist principles.

Big Benn

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The House of Commons decides and hostilities commence…..

Within minutes of the affirmative decision taken by the House of Commons on Wednesday night, the fighters were in action. Three RAF Tornados took off from their base on Cyprus, loaded with high explosive while at home several crack squadrons of combat trolls were deployed from RAF Twitter and HMS Facebook. Defence cuts there may have been, but these warriors were equipped with the very latest FoulTweet-140 bile-propelled missiles and the chance to use this exciting new technology in an actual combat situation was exhilarating.

The quarry that the Tornados had in their sights we do not know, but the targets for the trolls were easy to identify. Sixty-six Labour MPs had mistakenly assumed that the free vote on Syrian airstrikes granted by Jeremy Corbyn meant that they were free to vote according to their consciences. It may then have come as a shock to discover that the rules of engagement as laid down in the Islington Nice Politics Convention demanded that their only entitlement was to death threats and taunts of deselection. In certain provinces, notably Streatham and Walthamstow, radical Momentumist forces were reported as being close to a takeover.

The attitude of the Labour leader himself towards these activities remained ambiguous. Mr Corbyn is determinedly pacifist in the path of terrorism, fascism, jihadism and, who knows, even Thatcherism. Faced, however, with people who disagree with him in the Labour Party even his conscientious objection to violent expression strains at its limits. These myrmidons of moderation have now been upgraded in the terminology of hatred from Tory Scum to Blairite Scum and although Mr Corbyn put out an email in the middle of the week urging restraint, the attacks continued largely regardless. #Notinmyname is was not.

Mr Corbyn’s own commitment to restraint was tested as his foreign affairs spokesman, Hilary Benn, spoke passionately from the dispatch box to a position 180 degrees removed from the Leader’s own. If looks could Tweet. Mr Benn’s was a good speech, evoking traditions from the history of socialism from the unimaginable time before these people were able to take to social media, but hardly the great one it was immediately written up as, especially in the right-wing press. Tories in the chamber clapped and cheered, unrestrained by either respect for tradition, or by Speaker Bercow who, since by this point, had not visited the lavatory for 10 hours, was probably crossing his legs as much as holding his tongue.

Almost immediately the shadow foreign secretary was being spoken of as Mr Corbyn’s successor, thus bringing us to that all too familiar situation in British politics when the leader of the Labour Party is being undermined by a man called Benn. Junior, however, lacks the drive that came from the insane certainties of his father and has a political personality less suited to Tony Benn than to Mr Benn, the John Majoresque cartoon character. Benn mania lasted no more than 24 hours.

It was, in part, dispelled by the result of the Oldham by-election, which Labour won with, in proportion to the turnout, an increased majority. Mr Corbyn’s supporters immediately pounced on this as a vindication, even though the Labour leader’s principal contribution to the campaign was to stay as far away from Oldham as possible. A strong local candidate is thought to have played a larger part. Hints that Nigel Farage might resign in response to the thrashing for UKIP seemed pointless as well as exaggerated, since history teaches us that when Mr Farage resigns, the effect tends to wear off after a couple of days. Mr Farage besides is an important entertainment factor in British politics, cheering us up as the bombs started to tumble onto Syria with his sore-loser moaning about the alleged rigging of postal votes.

Excitement levels rose in the earlier part of the week when it was announced tht the House of Commons had voted in favour of a sugar tax. Sadly,  it turned out that this was an impost aimed in the direction of fizzy drinks rather than the presenter of The Apprentice. Health fascists – who, Hilary Benn please note, also need to be defeated – are in favour of such a move, as they are for other so-called sin taxes. Rather more revenue though could be raised by taxing people who fail to compose their contributions to Twitter and Facebook – abusuive or otherwise – into properly constituted, complete, sentences. We could call it the Syntax Tax.

The End of Austerity?

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George Osborne spends his way out of a political recession and the Labour Party implodes (again)….

Is this the end of austerity? Next to the question of whether or not Britain should commence bombing raids in Syria, this was the issue of the week. Generally it broke down that those newspapers and commentators who thought austerity shouldn’t end, thought that it had, and those that wanted to see the back of the squeeze were masochistically braced for yet more cutting to come. Creating an atmosphere of conflict and tension is essential to the craft of punditry. The more-pain-to-come faction lives in a perpetual sense of certainty that people are about to explode in outrage at the closure of libraries and Sure Start centres. They have been like this for the last five years. The failure of the public to react as the enlightened prints say they should might be put down either to ignorance – perhaps they needed to go to the libraries that are no longer there to find out what a Sure Start centre is – or to indolence or, perish the thought, to illiberalism. Either way, rumours of austerity, and its acidic effect on our social infrastructure, have always been greatly exaggerated.

And now it has gone. Or not as the case may be. What was obvious from the Autumn Statement was that George Osborne had found pots of money to invest richly in priority areas for public spending. These were, in no particular order, the NHS, the police and the political career of George Osborne. If it were not for the fact we were all too soon forced to focus on Syria and its attendant civil war – that is the civil war in the Labour Party – there would have been even more purring than there was anyway that the master political strategist had done it again. Cynics – especially tax-paying cynics – were left wondering how on earth it was all going to be paid for.

The Autumn Statement is second only to the Budget in being the occasion for the grand cliché. The devil is always in the detail and the Chancellor is foreever pulling rabbits out of hats. A relatively new entry to the pantheon – finding money down the back of the sofa – also made its dutiful appearance this week, although references to the red book – which usually mean the thick dossier of numbers put out by the Treasury to document the truth behind the Chancellor’s spin – on this occasion took us to Chairman Mao. John McDonnell’s unwisely chosen stuntsmanship distracted us from the fact that the Chancellor was more overrun with rabbits than Watership Down. The only explanation could be that, sod hats, he was fishing them out from down the back of the sofa.

The sofa was provided by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the fiscal equivalent of the Government’s reviewer of terrorism legislation: both are institutions of untethered probity designed to keep in check a politician’s wilder fantasies. It would be sacrilegious to cast aspersions about the OBR’s independence, but perhaps permissible to observe that it always seems to come up trumps for its begetter Mr Osborne. Whether that is because the Chancellor fits his political wizardry to its realities, or its realities tend to bend to accommodate the wizardry is a moot point. This week though, the OBR acted as official scryer, conveniently conjuring a sum of £28 billion from its forward projections for Mr Osborne to spend. This may well be the economic equivalent of a woman with mad eyes and bad skin incanting into the Chancellor’s face “I see money…lots of money”, but he did not need a second excuse. By next Spring, the woman may well be wailing “I see murder, fiscal murder”. Like all the best strategists, Mr Osborne’s method is to make it up as he goes along. Someone asked the Chancellor whether with his Autumn Statement he hadn’t realeased his inner Balls. Less Ed than crystal would have been a smart reply.

All this was, in any case, overshadowed by John McDonnell flourishing Chairman Mao’s little red book across the dispatch box. This was intended as a tactical deployment, rather than ideological: Mr McDonnell did after all assure us that he did not approve of the Chinese dictator’s massacre of 50 million people (“and all that” he added, as if making clear that he also took a dim view of Mao’s habit of under-tipping in restaurants). He wanted, he said, “to bring a little humour and flamboyance into politics”, reminding us that Mao’s humour and flamboyance have always been among his more underrated qualities.

That the joke landed badly showed that Mr McDonnell had forgotten the first law of politics, which is that if people think you are a Communist it is best not to go around quoting from the lexicon of top-draw Communism. Had Alastair Darling tried the same stunt, no one would have paid it the slightest attention. From Mr McDonnell however it provoked an endless stream of media cant. This may be hard cheese on the shadow chancellor. Nevertheless,  he should reflect on the fact that had he wanted to come to the House of Commons dressed in white tie and a top hat he could have got away with it in a way that David Cameron never would.

Mr Cameron was soberly attired the following day for his speech to Parliament on Syria. Framed as a response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – which had accused the Government of lacking a strategy – the Prime Minister’s statement was long and cogent. It addressed not just why we might want to start bombing ISIL in Syria, but our capabilities for doing so. These include the scarily named “Brimstone precision missile system” which is so brilliant that even the Americans don’t have it. (And why should they: in a country the size of America, Nottingham is precise enough, and that kind of mindset travels.) That there will need to be men on the ground prepared to fight and beat ISIL is not contentious, but these will not be British troops. The PM’s answer to that is to summon up a kind of Uber-army, comprising 70,000 local rebels whose work our airstrikes would support. There was, and is, widespread scepticism around this number and the Prime Minister may need to send his whips out to Syria to count them before he can be confident of any Commons victory.

The media showed rather less interest in what any of this means for Syria than in what it means for the Labour Party. On the question of whether or not Labour MPs should be granted a free vote over bombing ISIL, Jeremy Corbyn’s position is so extreme that not even John McDonnell supports it. An ardent advocate of stopping wars abroad, Mr Corbyn’s every action provokes them in his own backyard. The shadow cabinet broke up on Thursday agreeing to ponder over the weekend the free vote question, only for Mr Corbyn promptly to write out to Labour MPs putting pressure on them to vote his way. Shadow cabinet resignations were predicted if the Labour leader insists on whipping the vote.

And so it went on. Division in Labour’s ranks is now the most boring and predictable story in British politics. Thank heavens then that on Saturday the only politician who did actually resign was a Tory: Grant Shapps was the co-chairman of the Conservative Party when it allegedly failed to investigate properly the activities of Mark Clarke, who has now been banned from the Party for life. Those activities are said to have included bullying, blackmail – to the tragic point where one of the alleged victims committed suicide – and sexual assault. Mr Clarke denies it all. What is undeniable is that he was responsible for an initiative called RoadTrip. This involved moving large numbers of young Conservatives around the country, a reckless and terrifying activity, about which the country has every right to be concerned.