The political turbulence of the last four years – the rancour and bitterness; leadership plots; de-selections, elections and the rest - was behind us. The waters ahead looked smooth and easily navigated. We had left the EU and were getting on with Ministerial appointments, select committee work, routine Parliamentary activities…
And then - out of the blue from a little heard of part of China called Wuhan - came Coronavirus. (Why has it been renamed Covid-19?) All of a sudden, we are facing a Pandemic (expect that to be declared any day now), 20% of the population infected, many sad deaths, schools and businesses closed, even talk (incorrect I hope) of sending Parliament home for 5 months. Flybe’s bankruptcy was probably predictable, and only peripherally connected; but there will no doubt be other economic and businesses consequences, not least because of the enforced isolation of China. No-one can predict what the next few months will bring, just as not a soul predicated Coronavirus in the first place.
The public and commentators seems to risk falling into two fundamental errors over all of this. First, it is in fact not the Black Death, nor Typhus nor Spanish Flu. There will be casualties for sure; but then we have many deaths every year from ordinary flu. Some of us love a crisis and are succumbing to a thoroughly self-indulgent little panic over it all. Do not. It may be a bit unpleasant for a bit, but it’s not the end of the world.
The opposite is equally wrong. There are those robust souls around ready to say: “pull yourself together, nothing to worry about. Bit of infection never did anyone any harm.” I have some sympathy; yet they risk belittling what could well be a very serious Pandemic. It’s not a catastrophe, but it’s not ‘nothing’ either. So I think the Government have for now got it just about right. Keep taking all sensible precautions - lots of handwashing (didn’t we do that anyhow), self-isolation if you have been in contact with a sufferer; cutting back on needless handshaking and kissing. (All in favour of that anyhow.) It will all be over by the summer, so for now let’s just keep the panic under control. Keep Calm and Carry On.
Rather the same applies to Priti Patel. She certainly is a feisty character. But then you have to be to be a successful and effective Home Secretary. The campaign against her - by senior civil servants and the Labour Party - really does amount to the forces of darkness. So many Home Secretaries have been assassinated by them before now, and we must not allow it to happen again. Law and Order, Policing, Immigration- these are tough and controversial portfolios. Priti Patel’s approach to them is definitely at odds with the Liberal minded North London elite who run the civil service. That is precisely why she must be allowed to get on with it without let or hindrance.
And as to the Prime Ministerial engagement and imminent fatherhood – happy events indeed; and events which must not cut across the serious business of Government.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water……
Why is it that human beings are the only creatures on the planet who knowingly and intentionally poison ourselves? Alcohol, tobacco, drugs - we know they are fatally bad for us, yet we keep on using them.
The same foolhardiness allows us to wreck the very planet we live on- not only for ourselves but (perhaps more importantly) for future generations. It will be good to see Greta Thunberg (nearly an anagram of Attenborough) in the West this weekend, and I applaud the way she has stirred up the young to protest about the dramatic Climate Change crisis facing us all. I went to the Royal Geographical Society on Monday to attend a lecture by local lad Sir David Hempleman-Adams. He was the first person to sail round the North Pole in one Season. The Northeast and Northwest passages are now so ice-free that his boat, Northabout, achieved in a few months a journey which used to take many years, and cost many lives (Franklin et al). David complained that “I couldn’t find enough ice for a gin and tonic”. Evidence enough?
We must not panic over Coronovirus any more than we do over the common cold or influenza. But unlike them it seems to have been caused by an unnatural relationship with animals- a disgusting market in Wuhan where rare animals like Pangolins are kept in squalid conditions and then slaughtered for their supposedly magical qualities.
One by-product of Climate Change - downpours – is exacerbated by our very efforts to control the resulting flooding. Flood barriers upstream merely result in water moving ever faster downstream to find a place where there are no such barriers. Flood plains, on which we are now so cheerfully building houses were the traditional way of managing winter floods and enriching the meadows at the same time. Ironic how many letters I receive about flooding come from addresses such as “Water Meadows Close, Duck Lane, Frog Avenue, Marsh Farm” and the like. And incidentally, I am not at all sure that the PM turning up for a photo-shoot at some tragically flooded town necessarily helps anyone; indeed it may well hamper clean-up operations through the necessary fuss and security measures associated with all such visits. The newly-appointed Secretary of State, George Eustice is the man with the responsibility and expertise to deal with it.
The people of Royal Wootton Bassett have (perfectly correctly) been complaining about the awful smell emanating from the Thomas Crapper landfill site alongside the M-4. I raised it with Wilts Council and the Environment Agency, visited the site to see for myself, and this week spoke about it during a debate in the House of Commons. Richard Crapper knows my view- expressed in no uncertain terms - and they are doing what they can to correct the smell when the weather allows them to do so. Yet we should not forget that it is OUR rubbish. We still produce vast quantities of it, and have very little regard where it lands up. 280,000 tonnes of local waste arrives at the Crapper site every year. They have done great work in recycling two thirds of that, with only 95,000 tons going into landfill. And now they have ambitious plans to reduce that even further by developing an energy from waste plant, using the electricity to grow fruit and veg for local people. Crapper are to be applauded, not blamed. We are all the ones to blame for our careless use of the planet’s natural resources and throwing so much of it away.
Climate Change, Coronovirus, Flooding, Landfill – all are products of our carelessness. Only we ourselves can now put right what we and previous generations have got wrong. The Environment Bill which had its (unopposed) Second Reading in Parliament this week will help. But it is up to each and every one of us in our everyday lives to make it work.
The best laid plans of mice and men…Reshuffles are a fascinating game of 3-D chess. Something like 25 Departments, probably about 120 Ministers, PPSs and Whips all told out of 365 Tory MPs. 108 of them are brand new, so will not be given ministerial roles, although they may become those unpaid Parliamentary bag-carriers, Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Leaving aside others like me who have independent Parliamentary careers in select committees, their constituencies and so on, the talent pool available to the PM is surprisingly limited, despite the large Tory majority.
Throw into that mix some ambition to change the machinery of Government itself by amalgamating or abolishing departments here or there; add in personal spats and animosities; chuck in deflated egos, disappointed high risers, and the bad, the mad and the dangerous to know, and reshuffles are always tricky operations.
The PM was determined to create a Government of all the talents. He wanted to bring on some overshadowed talent from the lower ranks, clear out a bit of deadwood at the top. He wanted to reduce the number of people attending Cabinet without being a member of it, and he wanted some moderate degree of change in Government departments. This Reshuffle - which is not yet complete at the moment of writing - has achieved much of that.
Yet at the heart of it is the age-old power battle between No 10 and No 11. The Prime Minister - who is, after all, First Lord of the Treasury- wants to get on with doing things, all of which cost money. The Chancellor, quite properly, needs to balance the Nation’s books. That is a struggle which will always lie at the heart of Government. (Blair vs Brown; Cameron vs Osborne.) So the PM sought to exert his control via the network of Special Advisers; Sajid Javid saw the reduction in the power of the Treasury which that would mean, and concluded that he was becoming ‘Chancellor in name only’ and so could do nothing other than resign. And a resignation at that level in the middle of an already complex reshuffle throws the whole pack of cards up in the air. One resignation or refusal of a job makes the whole row of dominoes fall over.
The complex chess game is played out on a big board, the ministerial appointments listed down one side, with yellow post-its representing the available MPs being moved back and forth. On at least one occasion a candidate was overlooked because his post-it had inadvertently fallen on the floor. On another, my friend Brian Donohoe was offered a job by the PM, mistaking him for someone else called Donohue. And Tim Yeo missed out altogether when the Golf Club Secretary caught up with him at the ninth tee to say that No 10 was on the phone. A sceptical Yeo played on, only to discover to his horror when he made it back to the Club House that it had indeed been the boss, and that in the meantime his job had gone to someone else!
I welcome most of the appointments and changes the PM has made. The mix constantly needs to be refreshed, young blood needs bringing to the top. But the Chancellor’s resignation shows what a nightmare a big reshuffle such as this can become. No-one who has ever had to make anyone redundant, or sack them, can envy the PM this aspect of his job. Let’s hope the rest of it (junior ranks and Whips Office) goes more according to plan.
It’s Sunday, and it could be a bit of a gloomy prospect. We are pretty much flooded in to our house near Corsham. The electricity has been off for 24 hours or so. Its freezing cold in the house, and I have a puncture in my car with no spare wheel. I am hobbling around on crutches pending a hip replacement op, and Coronavirus hangs over us all like a great Sword of Damocles. Oh “Woe, Woe and thrice Woe “if you are old enough to remember the gloomy old Soothsayer in Frankie Howerd’s hilarious ‘Up Pompei’. “Ye’re all doomed” as Jock Fraser used to warn in ‘Dads Army’.
But then again, we are lucky to have an AGA so a big cooked breakfast cheered me up. We have a 4- wheel drive vehicle, so I made it through the flooded lanes to our excellent newsagent in Holt for the Sunday papers. Our next-door neighbours have a bore hole driven by electricity, so they have neither electricity nor water. (How ironic given the amount of water around the place) And we made it out last evening for one of the best dinners we have had in a long time- at the excellent Somerford Arms in Little Somerford. (A Community pub and thriving.)
Not only all of that, but the reshuffle behind us, we now have a lovely half term break to recuperate and get on with some constituency work. I am full of admiration for Ellie Gould’s friends who are campaigning to get self-defence classes in every school curriculum, and I am doing what I can to help. I am working to sort out a problem with leasehold houses near Royal Wootton Bassett, and have a meeting with Mr Crapper on his landfill site, both to upbraid him on the unacceptable smells which have been emanating from the site in recent weeks, and to hear about some new projects he has in mind. It’s not his fault - it’s ours for generating so much rubbish. If we could use less, recycle more, there would be less and less reason for a landfill site like Crappers.
I nip up to Ashton Keynes to sympathise with villagers’ objection to yet another minerals extraction plan which would in the end result in the village becoming an effective island, with lakes entirely surrounding it. I combine that meeting with a visit to outstanding local coach company, Ellisons, who perfectly reasonably cannot see why a current Government consultation should force them to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in making all of their school buses disabled friendly when there are no disabled children locally. (If there were, then Ellisons would make suitable provision). And I drop in to the lovely community run Ashton Keynes shop for a (rather late- sorry, Philippa) Valentines Day card and present.
These and a dozen other similar matters are the very meat and drink of the Constituency MP’s life, and I get huge satisfaction from it. You may not be able to help with everything which is brought to your door. But I relish every single such problem that I am able to help solve.
So I wish Rishi Sunak and the all the other young thrusters who have been promoted to various jobs in Government well, but like the farmer in the old poem:-
Let the wealthy and great live in splendour and state.
I envy them not, I declare it.
I have lawns and bowers. I have fruits and flowers,
And the lark is my morning alarmer.
Neither Storm Dennis, flooding and power cuts, Coronavirus, punctured tyres nor my imminent hip operation gets us down, when there is so much good in the world, and so much work to be done.
Just crack on, I’d say.
The ship of State finally feels as if she is sailing calmly along, breasting the waves, a full breeze in her sails. (Enough shipping analogies, Ed.) All of the nastiness, the in-fighting, the plotting; the vainglorious pomposity of the Speaker; all of that is gone. We are setting about a huge raft of new legislation; select committees are getting elected and setting about their work, the 150 or so new members finding out where the coffee machine is (I do them a disservice - they are a highly talented and ambitious bunch of people). All is well.
Of course, there are some rumbles from previous times. My erstwhile neighbour Claire Perry has made a proper song and dance about her well-deserved sacking as President of COP 26. Her successor in Devizes, Danny Kruger, is absolutely first class. If we are to achieve anything at the vital COP 26 meeting in Glasgow in November, it must be headed by a Statesman of international renown. I am sorry that William Hague and David Cameron both turned the job down. Perhaps Theresa May would do it? Or Michael Gove?
Mr Bercow has equally made a fool of himself berating Lord Lisvane and General Sir David Leakey, Black Rod. Both are extremely fine men and they, having gone public about Mr Bercow’s outrageous temper tantrums and bullying, said ex-Speaker might have been well advised to sidle quietly away rather than confirming their allegations by intemperate outbursts against them on TV and radio. But then I guess he’s got a book to promote. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the new Speaker, is a wonderful contrast in almost every way. Quiet and modest, he has even put in place a mechanism by which if the Clerk of the Commons thinks he has unreasonably been over-ruled by the Speaker he may place a note to that effect in the Library for all to see. I hope Mr Bercow remains Mr Bercow.
There will be a reshuffle - some say a major one - in the next week or so. Those who get promoted tell themselves (and everyone else) it’s as a result of their great merit and capabilities; those who get sacked are bitter and twisted some for years to come. Some of the 108 Tory ‘new intake’ believe that they should be in the Cabinet in a matter of weeks. They will be disappointed. Those ‘young thrusters’ get grumpy when one of their undeserving friends becomes the deputy Parliamentary Secretary to the junior minister for paper clips, believing that they have been overlooked - a sure early sign of a catastrophic failure of their careers. They should realise that politics is a marathon not a sprint. They should also realise that just being an MP, representing your constituency, is of itself a very honourable role in life, even if preferment never comes your way. They need to calm down a bit.
Of course there are passionate arguments about the great affairs of State. I personally am worried about Huawei, very concerned about possible prosecutions of veterans, and wholly opposed to HS 2. But we don’t have to agree about everything. Indeed, we are sent here to Parliament to disagree about things. Thesis and antithesis produce synthesis.
So the seething turmoil of egos and emotions which is the very lifeblood of Westminster bubbles away as much as ever. But a strong PM with a good mandate, and a very heathy majority in the House of Commons, means that all of those emotions and ambitions no longer matter. Boris and his Government may now do what they believe to be best for the Nation without let or hindrance. The ship of State is indeed ploughing through the waves.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.