Gale`s Westminster View - still from isolation – October 2020

westminsterOctober. It seems like and is a long time ago but there was a virtual Conservative Conference with virtual fringe meetings, virtual speeches from Priti Flamingo, Dishi Sunak and Mayor Boris, virtual enthusiasm but no virtual laughter or applause.

An SNP MP caught  Coronavirus, came down by train to Westminster, made a speech in the Chamber and went back to Scotland by train. She is still an MP but the Wee  Lassie in the Tin Hat has booted her out of the SNP.  The Commander in Chief, on the other hand, held a coronavirus super-spreading party on the White House lawn, caught the virus with the First Lady and many of his staff , went off by helicopter to The Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre to receive a brand of treatment not available to his fellow Americans and celebrated his miraculous survival with a motorcade drive around Washington and a triumphant Ride-of-the-Valkyries style return by helicopter to the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Mr Murdoch does not want to sell it but Mr Farridge is seeking to acquire Talk Radio to give himself something to do when he gets back from campaigning for the Tramp in the USA. A vastly delayed Honours list is published .Baron `Beefy` Botham and Baron `Bro Jo` Johnson will wear ermine but no such elevation for John Sentamu, the splendid outgoing Archbishop of York. To lock down or not to lock down as the second wave of CV19 breaks? The scientists say “Yes”. The Government says “No” and opts  for death by a thousand regional cuts instead. The Mayor of Liverpool plays ball. Mayor (Andy) Burnham  of Greater Manchester plays hard ball and asks for more money than Liverpool. Mayor Boris imposes his iron will upon Manchester. And then generously pays up anyway. In a different kind of ball game the Prime Minister takes on the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford who is campaigning for Free School Meals over the Autumn  half-term holiday  and loses the media game. Even Liverpudlians were supporting the MU player.  Rashford 2, Johnson Nil.  It is not a great month for Red Jerry Corbyn starting , as it does, with the publication of an unfortunate law-breaking `six-plus` dinner party and ending, following the publication of the results of the inquiry into socialist anti-semitism, with his suspension from the  Labour benches. The man who less than a year ago led his troops to glorious defeat in the 2019 General Election is now languishing in a parliamentary gulag. Pro-Islamist terrorism rises  again in France as the spectre of the Charlie Hebdo massacre emerges and manifests itself in grisly beheadings in Paris and at the Basilica in Nice. The inexorable tide of human-trafficked illegal migrants leaving Calais for Dover in  overcrowded and dangerous rubber dinghies  ends the `season` in tragedy as a Mother, Father, two small children and a baby  from Iran are all drowned at sea and an attempt by Nigerian stowaways to hijack an oil tanker en route for the port of Southampton is ended in just seven minutes by the  men of the Special Boat Service. Memo to future stowaways: if you are going to try to hijack a ship don`t do it within a few minutes` flying time from the SBS base in Poole Harbour in Dorset!  

The Ides of October have come and gone and there is no trade or relationship agreement with the EU in sight .But as we all know EU deadlines are a construction of considerable elasticity. To mix metaphors the Fat Lady has yet to sing, the Chimes at Midnight have not yet struck and as Neville Shute once famously  reminded us  “There is Still Time Brother” .  Come  to think of it, “On the Beach” ended in Armageddon. Happy days!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing with which we are all blessed. Looking back I suppose that it ought to have been been blindingly obvious that if you send thousands of students hailing from all over the Country to Universities to live metaphorically and in some cases literally on top of each other then given youthful enthusiasm combined with a pandemic there is likely to be a resurgence in infection that will start on campus and then in short order spread up through the age range and out through the rest of the population. And it is neither unkind nor unfair to say that that is exactly what happened at the beginning of October.

It is not surprising that the University of Northumbria, for example, swiftly generated seven hundred and fifty students all testing positive and all needing to self- isolate in ‘bubbles’. What is of more concern  is that not only were some universities  not prepared for the need to provide food for students ,some of whom had never lived away from home before,  living in lockdown but that the Government was not prepared for the rapid spread of the second wave of  Covid 19 either.  My notes tell me that  Professor Chris Whitty, one of the Government`s head boffins, warned on the first of the month that hospitalisations were rising rapidly in some areas and that was before the full force of the university effect began to be felt. By the end of the first week we were looking at 12,000 confirmed new cases, 49 new deaths and rising. The infection rate was, at one in 200, and 411,000 confirmed cases, four times higher than at the  beginning of September.  Elsewhere in Europe , in France and Germany for example, the shutters were coming down across nations.  Heeding the economic rather than the scientific arguments , and although the devolved administrations were taking a rather different line,  the “Cummings Cabinet” decided to opt for a three-tiered regional approach concentrating controls on the worst-affected areas while allowing as much of the country as possible to stay open for business.

With the focus of the  spread on the North West and the North East this was inevitably going to be divisive and confusing. Liverpool, Warrington and Middlesborough faced early restrictions and more  Northern towns followed swiftly. Face-to-face tutorials  in universities quickly gave way to on-line tuition begging the question which still remains: while primary and secondary school pupils living at home need to go to school if at all possible what purpose is there, save  for a `student experience` that cannot be enjoyed , in maintaining mature young men and women on campus when they could, with less risk to heath and greater public safety, work from home until the storm has passed.

As another of the nation`s top scientists, Jonathan Van Tamm, warns that we are `reaching a tipping point` the Government holds to its regional approach. The Labour Mayor of Liverpool enters into a responsible financial support package in return for a Tier 3 `Scouse arrest`  lockdown while the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the former Labour MP Andy Burnham, engages in  a dangerously protracted bout of political arm wrestling with the Prime Minister,  wastes  precious time and ends in the lockdown having to be imposed from Downing Street anyway.

In addition to the loss of life from Covid 19 there are the hidden costs in mental health and untreated other life threatening diseases. Cancers, for instance, remain undiagnosed as hospitals are compelled to clear the decks for the anticipated influx of pandemic cases.  And as every day of lockdown passes more jobs are lost as large and small businesses close never to re-open. What is a Member of Parliament supposed to say to someone who is watching a lifetime of hard and successful work wiped out overnight?  Not just the cost to the economy and to employment but the emotional cost also is quite awful. Failure to act fast enough and hard enough comes at a price.  We are burning money and we are burning political capital.

Parliament is fragmented. The publication of the report into anti-semitism within the Labour Party, that report`s condemnation of Mr. Corbyn for his failure as the then leader to root out the problem and his consequent suspension from his Party under Keir Starmer has exposed the fault line within the official Opposition.  Starmer, it has to be remembered, served in the Shadow Cabinet under Red Jerry  and alongside him during the, for Labour, disastrous 2019 election. While technically the suspension of party membership is a matter for the Party and not for the Leader and while that suspension is open to appeal the Leader`s fingerprints are all over the decision and those fingers are, if only by acquiescence, not entirely clean.  Much of the Parliamentary Labour Party, recruited under Red Jerry, is still passionately Corbynite and the removal of Momentum`s standard bearer has left a massive rift wirhin the Opposition ranks.  Added to which Keir Starmer himself has, at the DespatchBbox, all the charisma of a speak your weight machine. He is described as “forensic” but in reality it is only the Prime Minister`s seeming  inability to resist a rapid descent into the politics of the  classroom supplemented by stuttering bluster that affords the Leader of Her Majesty`s Opposition the appearance of something resembling authority.

Labour`s difficulties,however, seem modest beside those of a Government party that with a massive majority ought to be enjoying the fruits of unity and the ability to take bold decisions with confidence.  In fact division and indecision appears to be the order of the day as the ship piloted by the unelected Mr Cummings sails perilously close to the wind and the rocks.

“Research Group” has become a euphemism for opposition within the Government party it seems.  It was the “European Research Group”, that Praetorian Guard of die-hard Conservative Brexiteers , that brought down the Premiership of Theresa May and led to the installation of Mayor Boris in Downing Street.  While the ERG continues to act as the custodian of the the Brexit Gospel the emergence of the newly formed “Northern Research Group” of more than fifty Tory MPs should give the man in Number ten some sleepless nights.

Nobody should underestimate the division between  north and south over the decision to lock down, first, the North of England during the second wave of the pandemic.  No matter that the North is at present the seat of the infection: for young “Red Wall” Consevatives looking over their shoulders at meltingly slender majorities in seats snatched from Labour last December this is a trial of strength between health and a working man`s jobs and they know which side they are on.  Add into that brew some seriously heavyweight muscle in the form of the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady and you have a toxically explosive mixture.  

There are, in addition to the “lockdown/Stay open” factions , other bones of contention as well. Not since the days of “Milk Snatcher Thatcher” has a senior Tory been perceived to steal food from the mouths of impoverished children.  The reality of course is rather different.  Having been bouncesd into providing “Free School Meals” during the summer holidays by the young and charismatic Manchester  United footballer Marcus Rashford the Government should have come up with an alternative plan for the Autumn half-term and Christmas Holidays. Free School Meals were, after all, never designed as an income-support mechanism but rather as a mechanism to ensure that during term-time pupils received at least one square meal a day.

In fact, generous wads of taxpayers` boodle were handed out to local authorities to help see those in need through hard pandemic times but the management of the political optics was a disaster. Instead of espousing the ready availability and  simplicity of Mr Rashford`s proposal  over the half  term while then devising a “Home Meals Voucher” scheme for what for some families will be a very bleak Christmas, the Government handed Mr Starmer a stick with which to beat them.  And that, having bought into the scheme and accepted the principle in the summer, was quite simply inept.

Three hundred and twenty two Tories voted against the extension of free school meals over the half term and two hundred and sixty one of other parties voted for. I courageously abstained  myself because I was not prepared to subsribe to a piece of blatant party-political opportunism but in the end we all now seen as the heartless Party that took the food from the children`s table.  Nice one Mr. Cummings!

The row over the Internal Markets bill has now moved to the Lords where amendments have been tabled that will shortly be sent bac to the Commons.  As one of only two

 Conservative MPs who voted against what I regard as a flagrant attempt to tear up part of a Withdrawal Treaty signed in good faith I hold to the view vthat we as a nation honour our word and our obligations  or we are nothing.  Mr Johson brought back an agreement that he claimed as a triumph and that he  campaigned upon in his election.  That it is now regarded as deeply flawed is irrelevant  The Prime Minister may not have an eye for the fine print but he shouls have read the document properly before he signed it. And if he signed it knowingly and intending to repudiate it later then that, in my book, is a hanging offence.

There are also the small matters of the Agriculture and Trade Bills.  Much was made during the Referendun campaign, by Mr Gove and others,  of the fact that when we left the EU we would be able to veto the importing of animal food products generated  under conditions that we do not permit in the United Kingdom.  Neither the Agriculture nor the Trade Bills yet contain provision in law for that and the Government has rejected amendments on the grounds that they are not necessary.  But why should we take the word of an administration that is prepared to tear up an international treaty? More Lords` amendments will follow!

The Brexit negotiations with the EU over trade and relationship agreements have, for the moment, gone off the radar.  The Prime Minister`s self-imposed  October 15th deadline after which all bets were supposed to be off as we prepared for a First of January 2021 trading on WTO terms came and went.  Fishing and State subsidy of business remain the sticking points that of course delight hard-right Brexiteers.  Behind the scenes, though, Lord Frost and Michel Barnier are still talking and it may yet be that an eleventh-hour deal of the kind for which the EU is renowned, may be cobbled together. The next couple of weeks will tell.

There has been a Presidential election in the United States of America, of which more next month, and at the end of October the Government bowed to the science of the inevitable and has imposed four week (at least) lockdown . Arguably belatedly, but better late than not at all.

 The University of the Third Age is exercised by the use of ‘patronising’ descriptions couch as ‘geriatric’, ‘Fuddy Duffy’, ‘Over the Hill’, ‘Fogey’, ‘ Old Dear’ ‘ Old Buddy’ and ‘Golden Oldie’. As the Senior Vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the main qualification for which is to be the oldest leader of a national delegation, I have always referred to myself as ‘The Resident Geriatric’. Oh dear, old dears.

 Thinking of which the Capitol of the USA in Washington is known as ‘The Hill’. Is the President of the United States now over it?

 And while we are dealing with Americans do you know why ‘ working girls’ are known as ‘hookers’? Answer next month.

 Shock, horror in the Chamber as the Manchester Tory MP Chris Clarkson asked of the Opposition Front Bench “Did the Honourable Lady just call me ‘scum’ “? Yes. Ms Angela Rayner, for it was she, just did. The Chairman of Ways and Means, Eleanor Laing, was decidedly not amused.

 A Subway sandwich cannot, in Ireland , be called a bread roll.The Supreme Court has ruled that it is not a staple food but ‘more like cookies’ and too sugary. Which sadly for the vendors means that it is not exempt from VAT.

London’s Goldsmiths University has been displaying an ‘ art installation’ in the form of  a 29-ton pile of carrots. The masterpiece by one Rafael Perez ‘explores the tensions between the rural and the city’ and was ‘inspired by European Farmers dumping produce’. I confess that until now I have never regarded those piles of vegetables blocking French motorways en route to Calais as art but chaque  un......etc.

Sign of the Covid times. Norfolk’s Turkey breeders are downsizing their birds this year to cater for ‘rule of six’ Christmas gatherings.

Meanwhile Manchester’s Pizza Police have decided that the slices  of pizza served to accompany drinks in the city’s Common Bar, are too small to be classed as a ‘ substantial meal ‘ for the purposes of Tier 3 lockdown exemption. The 11” pizzas contain 600 calories which is more than a Big Mac but only a 14” or a 22” pizza will fit the Old Bill. Guilty as charged.

School children have, to prevent the spread of disease, been banned from singing Happy Birthday for classmates. They may, though, hum the tune or clap instead.

The iron curtain is falling on the nation’s cinemas as the screening of the new Bond film, Time to Die, is postponed again by MGM/ EON until April 2021. The With no blockbuster to boost trade the Cineworld chain has closed its 128 outlets with a loss of 5,500 jobs.

And the streaming of Walt Disney classics suck as Dumbo, The Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book and Peter Pan shall be accompanied by  the warning that ‘these programmes contain harmful cultural stereotypes . So far ‘ Bambi’ appears to be exempt.

So much for HS2’s environmental credentials. The railway line’s contractors have felled a 250 year old pear tree near Cubbington in Warwickshire. The tree, which was planted in the reign of King George 111 and was the 2015 Tree of the Year, will be replaced by 40 Saplings taken from cuttings. So that’s alright then.

M’Learned Friends have taken umbrage because the Home Secretary, The Priti Flamingo, had the temerity to criticise some lawyers for her `hostility` in daring to suggest that they might be making an opportunist bob or two  out of seeking to frustrate or delay removals following failed asylum claims. As Ms, Patel says there is no law that suggests that members of the legal profession are above criticism.

 A Central London law firm has advertised for a full time dog walker at a salary of £30,000 a year. Those legal beagles must be coining it.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is broadening its horizons and is opening its doors to ‘anyone legally defined as a woman’ 

The Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood has revealed an unexpectedly risqué hobby. Apparently the ageing rocker knits scarves!

And Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath, is opposed  ‘ in his personal capacity’  to the building of fifty new homes in Bagshot in his constituency. The village is home to Prince Edward , amongst others, and The Gover, while presumably supporting his Cabinet colleagues in their desire to ‘build, build, build,` clearly believes that while it is okay to smother the Garden of England in houses it would not be such a good idea to encroach upon the leafy lanes of Surrey.

Helen Reddy (78) was the Australian born singer/ songwriter who created the feminist anthem `I Am Woman’. She scored 12 top forty hit records, sold 80  million albums worldwide and won a Grammy award as the best female artist in 1973.

Yuri Orlov (96) was the Soviet nuclear scientist who in 1975  founded the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor human rights. He spent fifteen years in internal exile in Armenia and served seven years hard labour in a prison camp before being released in 1986 under a Soviet- US exchange deal. He was, in 2005, the first recipient of the Andrei Sakharov prize.

Frank Windsor (92) was a classical actor who became best- known as DS John Watt, a role that he played for fifteen years  alongside Alan Stratford Johns as Charlie Barlow in the 1960s Z-cars TV series. The show, which morphed into Softly Softly - Taskforce , attracted 14 million viewers at its peak and was originally broadcast live .Frank  also appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company and at the Old Vic  and Chichester Festival theatres. He kept delightful Rottweiler dogs and was a supporter of the World Wildlife Fund.

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne (96) was a leader writer for the Times in 1953. He joined the Daily Telegraph in 1961 and became editor of the paper in the late eighties. He was knighted in Margaret Thatcher’s resignation  Honours list in 1991.

Johnny Nash (80) had his first hit records, Teenager Sings the Blues and The Teen Commandments ,in the 1950s but will be best remembered for his 1972 US number one record ‘ I Can See Clearly Now’.

Dilys Price ( 88) was the world’s oldest female skydiver.The lady who was scared of heights took her first jump thirty years ago and her last  solo dive at the age of eighty.

Sir Sam Britton (86) was the Financial Times commentator and Falklands War dissenter who  withSir Keith Joseph generated the founding free- market text of Thatcherism. He was knighted and also received the Legion D’Honneur in 1993.

Herbert Kretzmer (95) the theatre critic of the 60s and 70s also re-worked much of the Paris production material and libretto for Les Miserables, the show that sold 70 million records across 42 countries.1In 1962 he took over from Bernard Levin as critic at the Express and worked at the Mail from 1979-1987 before joining Cameron Mackintosh to work on Les Mis. He penned the legendary  ‘In the summer of his years’ sung by Millicent Martin on TW3 following the murder of John Kennedy . He received a Tony Award in 1987, a Grammy Award in 1988 and the OBE in 2011.

Frank Bough (87) was the TV and radio commentator who took over from Peter Dimmock in 1964 and went on to present 850 episodes of Grandstand for 13 years from 1968.He covered 14 cup finals, three World Cups and in 1976 160 Hours of Olympic Games, he was one of the founding presenters , with Nick Ross and Selina Scott, of the BBC breakfast show in 1983.

Donald Hayter (94) was behind the design and development of the 1962 MGB Roadster , Mississippi Garages’ best selling sports car which reached half a million worldwide customers .The epitome of British engineering excellence was driven by Bill Wyman, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Pierre Trudeau, Sharon Stone, Sting and Margaret Thatcher

.Nobby Stiles ( 78) started his footballing career as an amateur with Manchester United when he was fifteen. He was a member of the 1966 England World Cup squad and earned 28 caps for his country. Between 1989 and 1993 he was back at Old Trafford as Youth Team Coach mentoring Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.

And JJ Williams (72) was the Welsh rugby  wing three- quarter who helped his nation to four consecutive triple crowns and two grand slams in the 1970s.

And finally...
HMS Hermes the 1982 Falklands War flagship, built in Barrow  in Furness in Cumbria 67 Years ago and sold to the Indian navy as INS Viraat ( ‘huge’) in 1999  has had her colours for the last time. In her prime she carried 21 Harrier jump- jets and 5 Sea King and 2 Lynx helicopters.

And Britain’s oldest lady, Joan Hacguard from Poole in Dorset, has checked out at 112. Born when King Edward V11 was on the throne she had experienced two World Wars and 22 Prime Ministers. The wartime ambulance driver declined a 100th birthday telegram from the Queen because she did not want to reveal her age!

She is succeeded by Lillian Priest (111) of Swanage, also in Dorset , and her sister Gwen Moore, who is only 108.


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