The House has risen for the Christmas Recess. But two great questions hang in the air.
The negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement with the EU are beginning to sound a little more hopeful. If an agreement is reached by Friday this week, then it is likely that the House will be recalled in the early part of next week, and will work through to Christmas to scrutinise what has been decided (all 1000 or so pages of it), and either vote to pass it into UK law or, at least theoretically, to turn it down.
However, if an agreement is reached after Friday, the Recall seems likely to be around 30th of December, which strikes me as leaving worryingly little time for proper scrutiny of what has been decided. If no deal at all is reached, then then the House will not be recalled, leaving the consequential arrangements to the Government, with Parliament scrutinising what has happened when we get back on Tuesday 5th January.
Of all of those options, by far the best seems to me to be an early draft agreement, with Recall on Monday 21st, after which we can sit as long as may be necessary to give due consideration to it (leaving aside Christmas Day itself which must be sacrosanct), and also allow the House of Lords to have a view.
After all, the details being negotiated may well affect us all in almost every aspect of lives for a generation and more to come; so it is our duty to make sure that the professional negotiators, and indeed the PM, have got it right. We all want a deal. We want to see an end to Brexit- just to get it done. But that must not allow us to take our eye off the ball and agree to something which we may come to regret. We must not sell out our fisheries; nor must we be stuck to future EU laws on employment or the environment; and these matters must not be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. Too great a concession on any of those matters would not be acceptable to the majority who voted to leave the EU. Like any divorce, a clean break is best.
The other part of the Cloud of Un-knowing, of course, is Covid. I am glad that the Government have stuck by their promise to allow us all some kind of limited Christmas festivities. Not only is it one of the most wonderful and significant parts of the year; but also had they not done so, it is probably unlikely that some of us at least would have observed too draconian a regime. Covid Constraints must be Consensual if they are to work. So I am glad that Christmas is going ahead, but I also hope that people will be as modest and careful as they can be to avoid a massive third spike and resulting lockdown in January. This new strain of the disease seems to spread alarmingly rapidly; and we simply have to arrest its progress.
At a time like this predictions are barely worth the paper they are written on. But I profoundly hope that we get a reasonable Brexit FTA as soon as possible, that we scrutinise it as best we can and pass it into law before the 31st January deadline; and that we have a Happy, if modest Christmas, enabling us to emerge from Covid soon in the New Year. If even part of that happens, we will have good reason for celebration.
My chess playing ability being at best schoolboy level has not lessened my enjoyment of the brilliant TV series, Queen’s Gambit. The young orphan overcomes all kinds of difficulties to become a Grandmaster. Part of the charm of the programme is the very fact that I don’t have much clue about the Ruy Lopez Reversed, nor even the Scholar’s Mate. I am glad that there is something called three-dimensional chess. I really have no idea what they are doing, but I am full of admiration for the way they are doing it. I know that it is complex and important and way beyond my own comprehension.
So are the Brexit talks stalling? Is it all game playing to allow us to claim a victory- for example over fisheries – to cover up some major concession over, for example, the level playing field? Is Michael Gove’s triumphant agreement over the Northern Irish border central to the mainstream Brexit negotiations? Or is it on a different plane? Is it all just a question of a Mexican stand-off, or the Sicilian defence? Who knows?
Meanwhile, we welcome the first anti-Covid vaccines, and hope that we may be seeing the beginning of the end if not the end of the beginning. But it will still take huge self-discipline by us all in the meantime, especially over the Christmas break. Tier 1, 2 or 3, lockdown, herd immunity, PCR, Antigen and antibody tests, track and trace. It makes the Queen’s Gambit look pretty simple.
Small Business Saturday reminds us of the crucial necessity to safeguard our economy. Is it heading for a 1930’s style stagnation and collapse, or will it be a sharp V-shaped downturn and recovery of the kind we saw after Lockdown 1? Somewhere in the Bank of England there is a 1949-vintage machine called the Moniac, or financephalograph, which uses water flows and hydraulics to mimic the UK economy. You pour water into the ‘growth’ funnel, let some out from the ’inflation outlet’; a waterfall represents unemployment, or some such. Set the whole thing up and let it run and you can work out which little bits to tweak for the best economic outcome.
Balancing the health of the nation and saving lives with the economic health of our high streets is a delicate matter to say the least, and it won’t be over for another six months. I hope the financephalograph is up to it.
Meanwhile President Biden looks secure, although not if you listen to President Trump, and Britain’s relations with our oldest and best ally may need tweaking; President Putin seems to be testing nuclear weapons in a very worrying development, the threat from Islamicist terrorism has not diminished, and Climate Change may well make the rest of it simple by comparison.
Chess openings may be standard, albeit with a thousand variations. The endgame is the totally unpredictable, intuitive, skilful bit leading to either stalemate or checkmate. Right now, there are some pretty complex simultaneous three-dimensional chess games nearing the endgame: Boris Johnson vs Ursula van der Leyden, Michel Barnier vs Lord Frost, Whitty and Valance vs Rishi Sunak. The next few weeks will determine who is the grandmaster, and who the schoolboy chess loser.
In the chaos and confusion which is today’s world, sometimes you are just reminded of what really matters in life. For me, it was the birth (at 6 AM) on Tuesday morning of my first grandchild, Frederick Evelyn Gray Barker. At a moment like that, somehow or another, nothing else matters.
Pandemics will come and go, the economy and spending review will sooner or later seem ancient history; little local matters like Dominic Cummings (good riddance), Priti Patel (who I support), Christmas bubbles (to which I am very much looking forward) - all of these things disappear into distant perspective by the arrival of this new little life.
My daughter, Olivia, gave me the great news by video call just a few seconds before I was due to chair the Environment Bill Committee, and I was glad to be only slightly out of order by announcing the birth when the little fellow was only 3 hours old. He can put the Hansard extract up on his nursery wall!
It was only then that the true importance of the Bill we were discussing came home to me - long after we are all gone; long after these political squabbles disappear under the waves; when little Freddie is 80 years old as we go into the next century; what we were discussing in the Environment Bill - one of the most wide reaching and radical reviews of our environmental laws and regulations in a generation - will still be of huge importance. This Bill is truly not just for now, not even for our children, but for our children’s children. So I hope that one day little Freddie will be pleased that his birth was announced during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. Olivia should be anyhow - she is a committed conservationist and environmentalist.
Two days later Rishi Sunak had to give the Nation notice of some of the worst economic figures in generations as a result of the Pandemic. We are in the midst of an unheard-of economic crisis, and its effects will be with us for a long time to come. I welcome the various steps the Chancellor has taken to try to minimise its consequences in all of our lives. But we all know that everything ultimately has to be paid for one way or another. I very much regret, for example, the reduction in spending on Overseas Aid (although I was always opposed to it being written into law); and of course, I am sorry about public sector pay (except for the NHS) being frozen. But the Chancellor has to find the money from somewhere; and no source of funding to pay for the Pandemic is going to be popular.
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement is doing what it can to protect people’s lives and livelihoods. The fact is that there has been a sheer collapse in the economy, that unemployment will increase and people will feel the consequences in their everyday lives in so many ways. But what Rishi Sunak announced was designed to see us through the worst of it. It already has. Had we not had furlough, for example, from last March, we would be facing a far worse catastrophe than we are. So we need to plough on through it, pay the price, but try to keep the pain to its minimum. Keep our heads down. Battle through the storm and look to better times to come.
I (perhaps reluctantly) supported the Government on Tuesday evening in bringing in the new Tier system, despite plenty of siren voices beseeching me not to do so. I am particularly concerned about pubs and hotels, many of which are facing a bleak winter. And when I was showing my new Private Secretary Jenny Fleischer round the patch on Thursday, I was surprised how many pubs had opted to stay shut, substantial meals or not.
My reasoning for supporting the Government was very straightforward. According to the Secretary of State for Health’s latest Covid-19 Situation Report for the South West, the fact is that rates are rising quite sharply in rural Wiltshire. Purton, for example is (surprisingly) one of the worst hotspots in all of Wiltshire at least partly thanks to long term care homes in the area; while neighbouring regions such as South Gloucestershire and Bristol are in Tier Three – the highest level of restrictions. Both Swindon and Wiltshire hospitals are reporting increasing admissions. So I do fear that the restrictions even in very rural parts of Wiltshire really are necessary if we are to combat this virus and especially if we are to allow some slackening off over Christmas. I believe the Precautionary Principle applies here - if we act, we hope to avoid a likely disaster. If that disaster is imaginary, then we pay a price for it, but a lower price than we would pay if the predictions turned out to be true and we had not taken the appropriate actions. After all, if as a result of my vote hundreds of my constituents became infected, seriously ill or died, then I would not be able to look myself in the mirror.
What’s more, we have the vaccine to look forward to shortly, and I for one am very hopeful that life may well be starting to return to normal by about Easter. Pfizer and BioNTech's announcement that the vaccine they have been developing appears to be 90 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants was most welcome news. The Government is facing a massive logistical exercise in getting the vaccine out; and it will without a doubt take many months altogether. But it will be done, and we will be able to look back with thanks and gratitude to all of those who made it possible. In the words of the Royal Wootton Bassett motto, “We Honour Those Who Serve.”
I am especially concerned about the elderly, the sick, the bereaved or the lonely, who may well be facing a bleaker time than expected thanks to all of this. Our hearts go out to them and their families. All of the fuss which some people are making about what they can or cannot do with various branches of their families must be a bitter sound to those who have no families to fuss about. So, it may be a small thing, but if you happen to know of anyone who would feel a little better if they got a Christmas card from their local MP, then please do let me know with a name and address, and I will see what I can do. (I have quite a few left over from previous years which might be deserving of a good home.)
I will use any profit I might get from the sale of my new book, Wiltshire to Westminster - a collection of these columns stretching back all told to 1997 (but heavily edited I assure you) – to pay for the postage. So if you are kind enough to order one (and an early order will make delivery by Christmas possible), then you can also know that it is going to a good cause. Details are on my website, jamesgray.org.
Times are tough, and we are by no means through the worst yet. But the figures do seem to be levelling off, the Lockdown does indeed seem to have worked, and the early delivery of the vaccine, and its promised efficacy is something to look forward to. But we have to be strong until then and abide by the rules, difficult as it may be for all of us.
It may not be the Christmas season we hoped for but let us help each other through it as best we can, and things will be looking brighter with the New Year.
The overblown fuss about the long overdue departure of Mr Cummings just proves that the moment that the Spin Doctor becomes the story is the moment that he has outlived his usefulness. Barnard Castle was the beginning of his end. And the subsequent events of the week demonstrate his redundancy (despite the PM having to self-isolate in Downing Street). For there is plenty going on, and plenty to be very cheerful about.
There is suddenly a great deal of good news about the Covid vaccine - both Pfizer and Oxford, Astra Zeneca and others. It has suddenly become possible to imagine a world (or at least a Britain) without Covid. Ministers are wrestling with plans to allow a (relatively) normal Christmas, although there may well be a price to be paid in the number of days of Lockdown.
De Profundis - out of the depths, I cry to you, and am certain that my cry will be answered.
The Government’s announcement of a ten-point plan to kick-start the green revolution has been welcomed by all bar the most committed of climate change sceptics. The expansions of protected landscapes, increased access to nature, stronger flood resilience, the creation and retention of thousands of green jobs, the announcement of new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty as well as the Landscape Recovery Projects - who would not welcome it all? I am currently chairing the Committee Stage of the massive Environment Bill, which similarly lays out an exciting green future for the UK, as well as transferring all of the EU environmental safeguards onto the UK Statute Book. It’s a massive task - five hours a day in Committee on Tuesdays and Thursdays (shared with a Labour colleague) - wading through the minutiae of the Bill. It has 232 pages, 130 sections and 20 massive schedules, and every word can be debated. For example, there are at least 30 amendments deleting the word ‘may’; and inserting ‘must’ instead. It’s a great Bill welcomed by all sides, and I hope it will also be good law once it has been through this rigorous process.
Then on Thursday, the Government announced the biggest increase in defence spending since the end of the Cold War, which I very strongly welcome. Much of it is for ‘modern warfare’ – drones, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target acquisition; and the overall modernisation of the armed services. It may well still entail some painful losses - main battle tanks, for example, may be under scrutiny. So, some traditionalists may well be disappointed that their favourite bit of defence is a casualty of the modern digital era. But a 10% increase every year in defence spending is of huge importance in this new World of a Globally Focussed United Kingdom.
So, no-one is irreplaceable. The departing teenage scribblers from No. 10 probably thought (perhaps hoped) that the whole great edifice would come tumbling down without them. The week’s events and announcements demonstrate that nothing could be further from the truth.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.