Gale's Virtual Westminster View – May 2020

westminsterMay. Too many Cummings but no Goings. Thousands wait for package holiday refunds as the travel industry goes into meltdown. The Home Office does the Hokey Cokey over quarantine  while the Home Secretary herself struggles to get a handle on the largest number of illegal migrants to cross La Manche in a single month. Though to be fair she is not assisted by the escort for rubber dinghies helpfully provided by M.Macron`s matelots.  The Salford Broadcasting Corporation is on the rack over editorial bias.  “Infamy,  In For Me…..”etc but Covid 19 is no left-wing plot. Furlough is costing the Treasury £8 billion and rising and the Chancellor says that we face the worst recession for 300 years.

Even the Father of the House cannot recall that far back. The 75th Anniversary of VE Day is celebrated virtually, Katherine Jenkins sings from an otherwise empty Albert Hall accompanied down the line by Dame Vera Lynn and Her Maj addresses the world from the “Windsor Bubble”. NHS hospitals have weathered the worst of a predicted tsunami of patients but has that been at the expense of elderly patients decanted to expire of Coronavirus in residential homes? The Prime Minister`s 60-page `roadmap` out of lockdown takes the brakes off – literally – and seaside towns within easy reach of cities are flooded with visitors while all facilities are closed. A `virtual` Eurovision Song Contest of All-time Greats is won by ABBA. Now there`s a surprise. This season`s Love Island, due to be recorded in Majorca, is cancelled leaving the contestants, presumably, to stay in bed at home.  Meanwhile plans are afoot to start filming on some of the nation`s most-watched soap operas while excluding older actors and maintaining social distancing on the set. That should make for some interesting punch-ups and love scenes. Sir Keir Starmer makes his first appearance at Prime Minister`s Question time as Leader of the Opposition before a sparsely-populated Commons chamber. A forensic mind he may have, charisma he has not.   Testing and Tracing is launched prematurely to deflect attention from L`affaire Cummings. We have to hope and believe that it will bed down and work but at present it has more teething problems than a dental surgery. Across the Atlantic the President tweets while the United States burns. Malaria drugs are no cure for Covid 19 and they won`t solve race riots either.  Our Secretary of State for Health, looking not surprisingly battered after twelve weeks of the toughest job in Government at present, calls upon the nation do it`s “Civic Duty” and to comply with the instructions of the Government. And Mr. Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, wants Parliament to sit again without the benefits of on-line voting and `virtual` appearances in the Chamber from Members shielded or isolated at home. Mr.Mogg, of course, relies heavily on Nannies but not all in politics find childcare that easy to come by. Ask Mr Cummings.

The handling, by the UK Government, of the pandemic will, in the fullness of time, be the subject of a full and hopefully public inquiry. We need to remember that the disease appeared from China with little or no warning and arrived in a western world that was largely unprepared medically, politically or mentally for such an event.  Given the enormity of the problem that had to be addressed from a standing-start and the fact that the skipper was off the bridge and engaged in a near-death experience for a couple of crucial weeks I think that the Government has made a reasonable fist of a very mediocre hand.  Back at the beginning, of course, there were the sheer logistical problems of trying to get stranded British subjects home from all over the world.  They were not generally in easy-to-retrieve send a chartered flight and get them back bundles. They were scattered far and wide and I found myself making phone calls not just to France and Spain and The Canary Islands obviously but to Peru, The Gambia, New Zealand, Nepal, Iraq,   and all over the United States as well, of course, as China and those marooned on board cruise liners either as passengers or crew..  Could we have done better and faster? Yes, possibly, but it is much harder to bring back isolated individuals or couples than it is to repatriate a group of package holidaymakers from one location and thankfully I believe that all of my own constituents are now back home.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, moved very swiftly to put in place a package of measures to protect the employed, through furlough scheme and the self employed through the SEISS (self-employed income support scheme), as well as rate-relief on small business premises and other initiatives to try to keep mothballed  businesses afloat.  Policies made in a hurry and on the hoof will always be flawed and there has been a considerable element of rough justice in the Treasury approach. A very significant number of people who are the Company Directors of one or two man bands have found themselves without any support at all and the major banks were, at the start of the lockdown slow, sullen , unhelpful and unwilling to change their normal practices to meet the needs of the time. It took a significant degree of action on the part of UK Finance and the Treasury to goad them into support mode and some of the scars will be borne by their customers for a very long time.  The Chancellor has now extended his package of support into the Autumn. It is inevitable, I think, that some businesses will never return to the high Streets or the Seafronts and that staff now furloughed will eventually be made redundant. The measures taken have mortgaged the Country for at least a generation to

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has found himself faced with wave after wave of challenges and complaints and the normally confident and cheerful young Cabinet Member has aged visibly since the start of the lockdown.  It is very easy to be wise after the event and no doubt the inquiry, when it eventually takes place, will reveal failings. An early dependence upon the theory of `herd immunity` espoused by Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson permitted two major sporting events to take place and possibly dangerously delayed the start of the lockdown at the cost of many lives. A shortage of all manner of facilities and kit, from ventilators (now under-used) through to vital personal protective gowns and masks for those working on the front line led to a frantic scramble to try and source in a hurry and in a global market adequate supplies .This in turn led to a waste of time and energy and mixed messages and policies that could have been avoided. When the emphasis shifted to the testing of those with the disease  there was a self-imposed deadline and target figure that the media inevitably played games with and that was virtually impossible to meet but with a little massaging of the figures Hancock hit the target. To be fair, without the deadline we would probably still be behind the curve.

It is unfortunate that the lockdown is, in the eyes of the scientists that we are told we are listening to, being lifted prematurely and the “Test and Trace” programme upon which the easing of restrictions is supposed to be based, was also launched before the programme overseen by Baroness Dido Harding, was ready to roll. The genesis of that haste lies in two factors: justifiable pressure to start to get the nation back to work and to school in the interests of the suffering economy and a need on the part of Downing Street to generate some `good news` and to offer a distraction from the still-growing anger caused by the antics of the Prime Minister`s Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings.

Mr. Cummings has `previous`. He was relieved of his duties in support of the administration by David Cameron, at the time Prime Minister, who described him as a `career psychopath`.  Reinstated by Prime Minister Johnson he set about removing from office those who did not fit his particular bill and last autumn he had one ministerial adviser frogmarched out of Downing Street by the police.  I have never met the man to speak to but those that I know who have generally have not enjoyed the experience.  That has little or nothing to do with his bizarre sense of fashion but rather that his particular form of what some charitably describe as `brilliance` tends to take him and those around him perilously close to the edge of a political precipice.

It is true that it was a Labour-supporting newspaper that broke the news of the Cummings family`s dash, in clear breach of the lockdown rules that he himself had a hand in devising, from London to seek isolation on the family estate  in County Durham.  That, so far as I can see, is where the “left wing plot” to bring down Cummings begins and ends although it grieves me that subsequent revelations and actions have given comfort to Labours new `Non-Action Man,` Keir Starmer. The criticism of Cummings, one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign, has nothing to do, either, with Brexit.  It appears to have escaped the notice of those who suggest otherwise that we have already left the European Union and that the end of the `transition period` is enshrined in law and, with or without Mr. Cummings, will take place at midnight on December 31st of this year. And finally there is, so far as I am aware, no `Tory plot` to remove the PM`s adviser. Speaking for myself I have discussed the matter, as a courtesy, with my own Whip to advise him of my opinions and I have also spoken with the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. As plotting goes that is not exactly conspiratorial!

It was in fact another arch-Brexiteer and former Minister, Steve Baker, who first called for Cummings` resignation on the perfectly reasonable grounds that you cannot have Downing Street demanding that the people of the UK do one thing and suffer in silence while a senior aide does something completely different.  I believe that I was, as a `senior backbencher` to use the media descrption, the next to break cover.  In a brief statement I said that while as a father and as a grandfather I could understand any parent wanting to protect his child  Downing Street could not send out mixed signals at a very dangerous time in the history of our nation and that therefore Cummings` position was no longer tenable. Talk about lighting the blue touchpaper! Within two minutes that story was running on Sky television and I have spent much of the past week while trying to do constituency casework fielding press inquiriries as the story grew more legs than a centipede. Downing Street still does not seem to understand the true depth of public anger, from right across the political spectrum, about this matter.  People have been denied the right to sit with dying relatives, to attend funerals, to get married, to hug their children or their grand children or see newborn members of their families in order to fight the virus. Mostly they have done so responsibly and willingly in the national interest and to then see the Prime Minister`s adviser break those rules himself has been too much to bear.

Dominic Cummings has a four year old son who has health problems. He also has a wife who  is believed to have had coronavirus. Pleading `childcare needs` he therefore put them in a car and, without informing the Prime Minister or the Head of the Civil service or anyone else he embarked upon a 260-mile journey, allegedly without stopping, to the estate upon which his parents and other members of his family live in County Durham. There is a bit of me that says that, given the opportunity, I would have done the same thing to protect my wife and child.  But this is the man who sits right at the heart of Government and advises – some say dictates – policy to the Prime Minister.  I have scores of constituents, as has every other MP, who have experienced childcare and many other problems as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic and it is simply not good enough to say that there can be one law for Downing Street and another for everyone else.  While some of the media coverage has been scurrilous the notion that, having weathered the illness in Durham,  Mr.Cummings then put his wife and child into the car and took a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle to `test his eyesight` before driving back to London stretches the bounds of credibility too far.

Literally tens of thousands of e-mails of protest ( I have received over a thousand myself) and more than a million signatures on a petition calling for Cummings`  resignation suggest that the Prime Minister has squandered an unacceptable amount of political capital and goodwill defending the indefensible.   Mr. Cummings could have used his extraordinary Press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden to at least apologise for the hurt and distress that he has caused. He chose not to do so and for the moment at least it appears that, with the heat shield of the Prime Minister around him,  he has survived. But at what cost?

As a result of this less than glorious episode in the history of Number Ten we now have, instead of the `Blitz spirit` fighting the virus, people `Doing a Cummings` when they want to break the rules.

It was, in fact, not Mr. Cummings but the Prime Minister who, addressing the nation three weeks ago, fired the starting gun for the rush to the seaside. In an address to the nation to launch the Government`s

60-page `roadmap` charting the route out of lockdown Mr. Johnson unfortunate extemporised, as is his habit, and said  (I paraphrase) “Go back to work, exercise, sunbathe, drive to the coast”. You can drive as far as you like – but not to Scotland or Wales.  With glorious sunshine to enjoy and a city population that has been copped up for weeks the response was predictable.  While Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all rejected the incomprehensible “Stay Alert” slogan that the Government introduced in place of “Stay at Home” the English public were clearly very alert – to the opportunity to travel to the East Kent Coast that I represent. My own campaign to persuade people to “Stay Local” failed miserably.  No matter that the towns, the shops, most food and drink outlets and the public lavatories were closed. Or that there were no lifeguards on the beaches. They came in droves, peed in the streets, left their litter and drove home. And in Cornwall two people drowned.

Families can meet again – provided that they stay two metres apart – and people can play tennis and golf but not team games. Primary schools will re-open for some classes on June 1st and possibly for more children before the summer holidays.   The concept of trying to persuade 5-year olds to `socially distance` is likely to prove about as successful as trying to  nail jelly to the ceiling but no matter. Hi Ho, Hi Ho, as back to school we go. There is no doubt, if my locally resident grandchildren (6 and 3) are a yardstick,  that they do miss their friends and need to socialise again as soon as possible but have a thought for the teaching staff who are going to have to herd these kittens.

Just across the Channel shops and hair salons (still closed in Britain but clearly a Gallic priority) and the all-important markets have re-opened while in Spain, with an eye on the diminishing tourist trade, restaurants, bars and cafes are up and serving again. It is said that back home there are some pubs and restaurants that will never open again and I fear that that may be true. And while all this is chaotically going on with each nation operating, without any previous experience or a template, a `suck it and see` approach the Home Office has decided to introduce a quarantine period of fourteen days for all those arriving or returning from abroad.  Talk about stable doors and horses.  Back in March, when we could have locked down nine days earlier and saved some lives, bringing the shutters down might have made some sense. Now, thousands of arrivals later and with the tourist industry trying to get off the ground again we are proposing to close the doors. Now, this is little more than a dog-whistle measure that is ill thought-through and may be withdrawn even before it is implemented.  Nobody, but nobody, is going to come to Britain for pleasure or business (although there may be an exemption for businessmen who, of course, never carry diseases) if they have to spend the first fortnight under house arrest. There was going to be an exemption for France until officials woke up to the fact that there are no borders between the Schengen countries so that idea has been abandoned and Brits going to France will face a retaliatory fortnight in an oubliette  as well.

All this may do wonders for the staycation trade of course. If we can get the seaside towns open. What is really needed is a continued lockdown now and then a re-opening of everything and a launch of the Summer holiday Season , virus permitting, at the end of the school term in July. But don`t bet the house on that happening.

There are, of course, those who will be going nowhere at all  because they have spent all of their holiday money on pre-booked packages to sunshine locations and now cannot get their money back following cancellations. This is a really tricky issue: by law and by ABTA rules customers are entitled to a swift cash refund. It is estimated that travel firms are holding some £7 billion of travellers` boodle.  Given the size of the problem in terms of cash flow and logistics there is no quick fix.  Some punters have been perfectly happy to take vouchers for future holidays in lieu of money and that has eased the burden a little. Others, believing possibly rightly that they may not still be around to take the offered future holiday by the time the pandemic is behind us, want their money back. If everyone makes that demand then the travel companies will end up in the hands of liquidators and nobody will receive anything, not cash, not future vacation ,at all. Just another of the many Covid-related subjects that help to fill the mailbox.

Let`s talk about something more edifying. The good ship “HMS Bubble”, as Windsor Castle has become affectionately known, sails on robustly. The twenty-two staff looking after Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip are all hunkered down in isolation away from their families and living on the estate.  Her Maj is apparently still awakened by a lone piper from below her bedroom window, enjoys her morning ride and is busy polishing up her facetime skills so that she can keep in touch with her family. She speaks to the Prime Minister at a remote weekly audience by telephone and is in addition to the red boxes containing State papers that require attention she is, we are told, busy planning her Platinum Jubilee in 2022 to mark her seventieth year on the throne – by which time Prince Philip will have celebrated his 100th birthday.

To mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day the 94-year old monarch, who first broadcast to the nation at the age of thirteen  thirteen when war was declared in 1939, spoke again at the same hour and on the same day that her father, King George V1, spoke to Britain in 1945.  “The streets” she said, in the light of the Covid lockdown “are not empty. They are filled with love”. And outside the walls of HMS Bubble, at a distance, people partied on.

From Tom McGrath writing in the Irish Times: “For God`s sake open the pubs again before we all become alcoholic”!

There is a plot afoot to base the Television licence fee upon Council Tax valuations.  There will be Goggle Tax riots in the streets of Notting Hill and Islington.

John Lewis`s Lockdown `Must Have` shopping list includes, elastic for home-made face masks, gym equipment and training weights, yoga and Pilates mats, tequila, landline telephones, cocktail liqueurs, storage boxes, sports shoes and board games.

Students at Cambridge University are calling for a refund of fees because of the introduction of a `virtual year abroad` as part of their courses. This, the young men and women, say denies them their `rite of passage`.

A thirteen year old schoolgirl has successfully taken Oxford Council to the High Court because `trans` lavatory proposals  left her feeling `powerless and unsafe`. The plans to introduce the `trans toolkit` have been withdrawn.

For the first time (Roy Plumley are`t thee sleepin` there below?) Desert Island`s castaway has been left  marooned on his own sofa instead of from a Broadcasting House Carley float. The shipwrecked celebrity introduced by Lauren Lawrence was the Poet Laureate,  Simon Armitage.

The Government`s 60-page Lockdown Roadmap has been described unkindly as “like spaghetti junction”. Nonsense. There are no blind alleys or dead ends on the motorway.

Under the new regulations Her Maj can now motor north to Hadrian`s Wall. Her son, Prince Charles, cannot however, under devolved controls, motor South from his Scottish refuge in isolation to wave at her from the other side.

Back on the Thames the 900-year old tradition of `swan-upping` has fallen victim to the pandemic and has been cancelled. The ritual, which takes place between Sunbury on Thames and Abingdon over a 5-day period , is usually carried out by boatmen in skyffs wearing scarlet uniforms and is performed to establish Her Majesty`s ownership of the birds.

Plus ca change .Daniel Craig`s  French former ` Bond girl` , Eva Green, now thirty-nine, condemns the wearing of high heels as `anti-feminist` and making women look like `birds on sticks`  I cannot recall whether, in Casino Royale, Ms. Green wore high heels. Or much else, for that matter. 

And the grandesr  Bond  Dame of them all, Judi Dench, has scored another first to add to her collection of Baftas and Oscars. She has become Vogue`s oldest cover girl.

John Tydeman (83) , a BBC Radio Drama Producer for thirty years . He `discovered` Joe Orton in 1959 and in 1964 directed Entertaining Mr Sloane at the New Arts Theatre. He became a full-time radio producer in 1960 and assistant head of the department in 1979 before succeeding Ronnie Mason as Head of Drama in 1986, serving until 1994.

Little Richard (87) was a Rock `n Roll pioneer. Described as `The King and Queen of Rock Music` the piano-playing master of rhythm and blues, gospel and rock music  inspired Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Stones, Michael Jackson and Prince. His 50`s hits Lucille, Long Tall sally and Good Golly Miss Molly made his fortune and Tutti Frutti became an anthem for teenage rebellion.

Martin Lovett (93) was the cellist with the Amadeus Quartet. The for refugees from Hitler remained together for forty years performing Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and Haydn at a rate of one hundred concerts a year.

Roy Horn (75) was one half of the Siegfried and Roy magic and animal duo. Roy was  attacked and bitten  by a white male tiger , Mantacore, while performing in Las Vegas. On the way to the hospital he said “Make sure no harm comes to Mantacore”.

Millie Small (73) was the Jamaican born singer whose song “My Boy Lollipop” livened up Chris Blackwell`s Island Records label in 1964.

Flt. Lt. Terry Clarke (101) dies just hours before the 75th Anniversary of VE day. He joined 219 Squadron as a gunner on Blenheim fighter-bombers two days after the start of the Battle if Britain and was awarded the DFM in 1941. The sole survivor of the summer of 1940 is Flying Officer John Hemingway who is 100 years old.

Ken Rees (76) brought informality to ITN as a newsreader in the 70`s and 80`s and reporter. He covered the trial of the Yorkshire Ripper, the Wales` visit to the USA in 1985, the Funeral of Indira Gandhi, The Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska, and as Washington Correspondent the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.. He was the Royal Television Society journalist of the year in 1985 and the TV journalist of the year in 1986. He became ITN`s head of news in 1991.

James Sherwood (86) was the Anglophile American who acquired Sealink from British Rail and established the Sea Containers business. He will probably be remembered as the man who restored the Orient Express. In 1977 he bought two wagons-lits in Monte Carlo and went on to spend £31 million restoring two complete trains. The Venice-Simplon Orient Express and the journey by Pullman cars from London Victoria to Folkestone and then by Orient Express from Calais to Venice were legendary.   Sherwood also owned fifty Grand Hotels , Sealink Hoverspeed and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company.

Margaret Maughan (91) won Britain`s first Paralympic Gold Medal for archery at the 1960 Olympics.  The athlete was paralysed from the waist down after a car accident in Malawi in 1959 and took part in the 9th Stoke Mandeville Games which in 1960 became the Summer Paralympics. She won two gold and two silver medals in the course of her career.

And finally...
`Hitler`s Alligator` has died.  Saturn, the oldest alligator in the world, was born in Mississippi in 1936. The star of Berlin Zoo he escaped during the bombing of that city, when many animals died, was captured by British soldiers and given to the Russians. The Red Army shipped him to Moscow where he lived for a further seven decades. In the wild alligators usually live for between thirty and fifty years but eighty four, in captivity and without predators, is a record.  Which begs the question: what kind of predator takes on a fully grown male alligator?


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