WE ARE THE MASTERS NOW
The surprise victory of the Conservatives in May and the Labour implosion since has led to an arrogant style of government this summer.
Election promises have been abandoned and proper procedures bypassed by Ministers who see their time in government stretching into the mid 2020s. It is essential that judges, the media and voters keep this government under scrutiny in the absence of effective political opposition.
The list of examples of arrogance in power is quite long considering this government has only been in power for three months.
Take the crash of Kids Company. Only last week Ministers overruled civil service advice to give the organisation three million quid. Civil servants insisted on the rare procedure of a direct written order to do it. We need more of that from the Sir Humphreys.
Take the National Living Wage announced in the Summer Budget. The Low Pay Commission which gives independent advice to the government in this area, appears to have been by passed. At the very least its policy of making recommendations that keep job losses to a minimum has been seriously compromised according to many business organisations now deeply worried by the implications for their wage bills of paying £9 an hour by 2020.
Another example is the funding of the BBC. This is meant to be decided after a lengthy period of public consultation. In 2010 this requirement was ignored as the BBC was forced overnight to accept a TV licence freeze, funding the World Service and paying towards broadband roll out. The excuse then was the financial crisis prevailing at the time. What’s the excuse now? The decision to make the BBC pay for free TV for over 75s is an important one with many implications. However the BBC has once again been forced to accept the deal in return for getting the licence fee tied to inflation increases with no reference to us.
Government promises have been torn up left right and centre. More is yet to come out about when Ministers knew they were going to “pause” the electrification of the Manchester-Leeds rail line. And remember that promise to the elderly that there would be a £72,000 cap on their contribution to their care. That’s now been put back to 2020.
Then there is the political trickery that all politicians get up to but it leads to cynicism amongst the public. The demand by Tory backbenchers that we spend 2% of gross domestic product on defence has been met. Hurrah! But wait a minute, that’s only because intelligence spending has now been included. Then there are the British pilots flying bombing missions in Syria without parliament’s permission.
The one thing these arrogant Tories haven’t done is announce forty new Conservative peers. That sort of move is usually announced on a quiet Friday afternoon in early August. But Lord Sewell’s political discussions with ladies of the night focussed attention on the failed structure of the House of Lords and the preferment of a load of time servers and party donors is being delayed.
PEOPLE AND POLITICIANS STILL FURTHER APART
Jack Straw has been an outstanding MP for Blackburn.
He worked hard for the constituency and was proud to show it off to the American Secretary of State CondoleezaRice in a 2006 visit which I reported on for the BBC. He represented all his constituents including the quarter of the electorate from an Asian background. His relations with them were robust enough that he could be frank about sensitive issues. Mr Straw said wearing veils could make community relations harder. He spoke of some Pakistani men “fizzing with testosterone” seeing white girls as “easy meat.” Even in the age of Twitter and Facebook, he kept in touch with people’s views in the old fashioned way: from a soap box outside the Town Hall of a Saturday.
So it was with dismay and astonishment that I read this week that the former Home and Foreign Secretary had fallen for a media sting. A trap by the way that has been practised time and again on parliamentarians. Hopefully our elected representatives will be less gullible when the next set of pretty Chinese ladies come calling.
Jack Straw denies any wrongdoing, says he has always obeyed the appropriate rules and may be cleared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. But in the meantime he ends his 36 years as an MP suspended by the Labour Party and in the words of the Wallasey Labour MP and Shadow Leader of the House has “serious questions to answer.”
Here are a few of them. Why did Jack Straw have his grubby conversation in his Commons office against the rules? He says it was because of time pressure. He had enough time afterwards to show his guests around the place. He went “under the radar” to change EU rules on behalf of a company, justifying it by saying this approach achieved results whereas a public campaign might not. The public are alienated from politics precisely because they sense they are shut out from what is really going on.
But the main problem thrown up by the behaviour of Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind is not to do with whether specific rules have been broken. Most of the British people will pay little attention to the detail. On the eve of a General Election many voters are turning to fringe parties disillusioned by years of revelations about politicians “on the make and on the take” (George Carman in the Hamilton case). Straw talking about getting £5000 for one speech and Rifkind feeling “entitled” to a standard of living related his professional background stokes the fires of resentment that people feel about the greed of some Westminster politicians.
Jack Straw clearly expected to go to the Lords. That will now be a tricky call for Ed Miliband.
CONSTITUENCY FOCUS: WIRRAL WEST.
Can the Conservatives hold on to their only Merseyside seat? Probably because of the profile of their MP, Esther McVey. The feisty former TV presenter and business woman is now a Minister of State and probably headed for the Cabinet. She finally won the constituency back from Labour in 2010 but with a majority of only 2436.
Labour candidate Margaret Greenwood will be drawing her strength from the wards on the edge of Birkenhead but McVey will be hoping that the middle class towns of Hoylake and West Kirby will support the Tories and not drift off to UKIP