What do Ted Heath, Theresa May and Donald Trump have in common? Their reluctance to give up the levers of power and influence with a good grace must be just about the only thing.
Along with most of the world, I breathed a sigh of collective relief as we saw the end of the mad, bad, vulgar, self-obsessed Trump, and the arrival of the mild and apparently wound-healing Joe Biden, and the glamorous and highly competent Kamala Harris. They are taking on a tough job, but we all – of whatever our personal political inclination - wish them well in it. And well done to Vice President Pence for behaving in a more gentlemanly manner than his ex-boss and turning up at the important and symbolic Inauguration Ceremony.
Why Theresa May should have thought that a good moment to launch an (entirely unjustified) attack on Boris Johnson’s apparent lack of “moral government” is reminiscent of her equally foolish and ill-timed description of her own party as “The Nasty Party”. Does she not remember Ted Heath’s years of grumbling at his much-disliked successor, Margaret Thatcher? Is she not grateful that David Cameron has said not a squeak about her own disastrous premiership? Has she no loyalty to her own Party, or does self-disappointment over-ride it?
On the other side of the World, you may not have noticed an event in Mongolia – an independent Republic surrounded by those great dictatorships, China and Russia, whose Parliamentary system is based on Westminster’s since we were the first nation in the world to recognise them after Soviet times. The Mongolian Prime Minister and entire cabinet resigned this morning because their only Covid patient so far died being transferred between two hospitals in the Minus 25 degrees Celsius weather wearing only plastic hospital slippers. She died, apparently, not of Covid but of pneumonia. (There may be more to this story than meets the eye!) What a brave and honourable move.
Incidentally I hear very good things indeed about the roll-out of the vaccine in both Calne and Malmesbury, and the charm and efficiency with which is being achieved. So my thanks and congratulations to all of the professionals responsible.
I too stuck my neck out this week - rebelling against a three-line whip to vote in favour of Lord Alton’s amendment to the Trade Bill which aimed to stipulate that we should not trade with countries guilty of genocide. The 33 Tory rebels had China in particular in mind, and the fate of the Uighur people, who do indeed seem to be victims of genocide. Lord Alton may have erred by giving the decision to the courts, and it may well be reworded to make it a Parliamentary decision instead; but the principle remains the same, and I have no shame over my little rebellion. (Bang goes my knighthood- again!)
Politics should be about doing whatever you think is right, no matter what the consequences. Donald Trump and Theresa May could both take some lesson from the honourable PM of brave little Mongolia.
The excesses which are marking the end of the Trump era in the United States are symptomatic of something wider - the total failure of good governance. Decent government is all about making choices, taking decisions between or amongst competing interests and pressures. It’s about how you best use scarce resources for the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s about how you look after the weakest in society while not necessarily disadvantaging the better off or more competent. It’s about balancing off the short-term against the medium and long term; about ignoring popularity in favour of statesmanship while always being conscious of the fundamental electoral foundations of good democracy. It’s a complex business; which is why governments get things wrong from time to time; why they change course on occasion.
Trump, dictators of all kinds, ignore those delicate balances and sensibilities being certain that they are always right. He has taken it to absurd lengths by denying the undeniable fact that he lost the Election. It’s like Chemical Ali (or 'Comical Ali' as he turned out to be) broadcasting Saddam’s triumph as the American tanks rumbled into Baghdad.
Some of my Covid correspondents exhibit some of the same characteristics. There are the conspiracy theorists (QAnon and the Illuminati); there are the extreme deniers “Covid does not exist; it’s a figment of someone’s imagination; it’s no worse than a dose of flu”; there are the anti vaxxers ; there are the extreme libertarians who object to face masks and lockdowns; there are those with clear (if often incorrect ) views about the best way to roll out the vaccine; about how their military expertise from many years ago gives them expertise on testing regimes and how to make them work. It’s amazing how many expert epidemiologists and logisticians there are around; and astonishing how much their proven expertise so often fundamentally differs from the next correspondent with equally sound credentials.
The fact is that defeating this Pandemic is not a matter of conviction, nor of dogmatism; it’s a matter of flexibility, quick thinking determination to meet the enemy on its own ground and deploying whatever resources may be necessary. It’s the virus that’s in charge. It changes, mutates, flares, and the Government has to be ready to change its approach accordingly.
The fact is that we are in a straight race. It’s Virus Versus the Vaccine. We have to get enough people vaccinated before the virus overwhelms the hospitals. There are some signs that Lockdown may be starting to work - certainly in London and the South East with infection figures levelling off just a bit. Sadly, hospitalisations and deaths lag behind by perhaps a couple of weeks, so we will not see their peak until February, by which time substantial numbers of people will have been vaccinated.
So we have to hold our nerve. Strain every sinew to get the vaccine out. Observe the rules to the nth degree - avoiding if possible all human contact for another month or so. In everything we do we must presume either that we are asymptomatic and therefore a potential spreader, or that the person we are meeting may be. Either we or they have Covid and we must treat each other with all due respect as a result.
Trump is ignoring the realities of life. We must not do so.
It is quite right that Parliament has been recalled for a second time in this Christmas Recess to pass Lockdown Number Three into law. It is right that these things are scrutinised and approved by Parliament, not just by the Government. MPs must have a chance to raise specific questions about it all with the PM and Ministers, and this Recall is their moment..…. Sort of
For in a positively surreal way, the note from the Chief Whip recalling us all coincided with another note from Mr Speaker pleading with us all not to come back. It was a positively Alice in Wonderland moment. To be fair, the Leader of the House has now changed the rules with regard to remote participation in debates and statements, so that we can all have our say from home or our constituency offices. MPs have to log in electronically, ask for a chance to speak on a particular Parliamentary event; the names are selected at random by a computer and, if you are lucky, your name comes up.
However, perhaps because it can be done electronically, vastly more MPs than ever before are putting in to speak. It was 350 or so for the debate on this Lockdown. The PM’s Statement, the Statement on Education under Lockdown and then the substantive debate on the laws needed to make it all happen, all took place between 1130 AM and 7 PM including speeches from both Front Benches. So very probably no more than a hundred MPs were able to take part. And anyhow a time limited two minutes reading out a pre-prepared statement to one’s computer on the kitchen table hardly fulfils the highest standards of Parliamentary debate.
Not only is the debate pretty stilted, to say the least; but we are also effectively prevented from voting in person on the matter being debated. For a month or so at the start of Lockdown 1 we had a perfectly workmanlike remote electronic voting system. But the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg did not like it, perhaps out of concern that it would become a permanent fixture, and abandoned it. For a time it was only possible to vote in person in Parliament, but of course that cannot really be justified now that we are asking everyone else to stay at home. So they have brought in a ‘proxy’ system which in essence involves us handing our vote to the whips who vote on our behalf. I understand that the Government Deputy Chief Whip, for example, now holds about 250 votes.
I am afraid that, perhaps in line with so much else right now, the Parliamentary system is wholly unsatisfactory, and it cannot be allowed to continue. I am glad to serve on the Commons Procedure Committee which looks after these matters (or at least advises the Speaker and Leader, who may always ignore what we say). We are already turning our thoughts to how the Commons should look once the Pandemic is over. We are considering the elements of a proper Parliamentary debate; how to re-educate MPs who may have got a bit slack about the whole thing over Lockdown; and how to make the best use of some of the innovations we have seen as a result of the Pandemic.
The Commons is Surrealist, Alice-like for now. We must take steps to make sure that after the Pandemic is over we recreate it as the finest debating and decision-making chamber in the World. We more or less created Parliamentary democracy. We must now restore it.
Just yesterday when I wrote this week’s Column I commented on a serious matter in the Westminster World - whether or not the current Covid-inspired arrangements were or were not good for Parliamentary democracy. That now seems a petty consideration by comparison with the developments overnight in America.
It is simply inconceivable that in an advanced democracy thousands of thugs supporting the losing side should think it reasonable to invade Capitol Hill and seek to disrupt the smooth transition of power. The Republicans demonstrably lost the election, reconfirmed by the unheard-of loss of two Senate seats in Georgia. The Democratic party, for good or ill, now control both the Senate and House of Representatives as well as having a duly elected President. So be it. That’s democracy for you.
What comfort it must be to corrupt dictatorships round the world to hear ‘The Leader of the Free World’ apparently incite his disappointed followers to seek to disrupt that very democratic process. By any standard of decent governance anywhere, it’s an absolute disgrace, and President Trump will leave office under a cloud of shame.
The Global Covid crisis (and the UK figures announced yesterday are horrific) demands at least good sound governance to deal with it - governance which the people respect and accept even if they dislike it. That principle seems to have broken down in the United States and it must be restored.
In our own little way, we here must make sure that Parliamentary procedures and practice equally deserve the respect of the electorate as a whole. Government must be seen to be fair and decent and strong. That’s why I am so keen to be certain that the Westminster Parliament behaves and is governed in a way that all of the people accept, even if they dislike it. If it does not, then we risk undermining the whole basis of decent Parliamentary democracy.
You could well be forgiven for breathing a hearty sigh of relief as Big Ben bonged for Midnight on 31st December. 2020 has been a strange year for all, a really grim year for so many. People of course have suffered terribly from the Pandemic, through illness or even death of their nearest and dearest. Businesses have gone to the wall; jobs lost. So many of the events that we love have been cancelled; life has been at best ‘on hold’, for some a disaster. We would certainly not want to go through 2020 again.
Yet if you survived 2020, is that not so much better than not having survived it? And while there has been much to complain about, can we not also be glad over some parts of it. We must preserve the Covid-inspired humanitarian community spirit which we saw in so many ways during the year. Many people have escaped from the Rat Race to work from home, spend more time with the family and rediscover some lost hobbies and passions. We have done so many things that we have long meant to, but never got around to. Our health and to a degree our stress-reduced mental wellbeing have much improved, our exercise levels have increased.
And are we not lucky to live in such a lovely area as this? Many of us have gardens; those that do not are a stone’s throw from the countryside, historic villages, lovely country pubs (while they were open!) Spare a thought for those who may life in a tiny tower block flat in some great city; squashed in with umpteen bored children; facing a loss of livelihood, quite possibly a loss of physical or mental health. We may have had our little problems over the last twelve months; but let us think of the so many who are vastly worse off than we are.
As we approach the New Year, let us be glad that Brexit is done and dusted. I fought and campaigned for it for most of my political life and rejoice in the freedom and opportunities it will bring. But even those who were opposed to Brexit - and I honour their view if disagreeing with it - will be glad that it is all over and that we can get on with normal political and national life. The Pandemic is raging as we speak, and we may well be facing some very difficult times for a couple of months or so. But who would not rejoice at the imminent arrival of the vaccine (especially the Oxford Astra Zeneca one - Britain Is leading the world with it), and the likelihood that the Spring will bring a sharply reduced infection rate, and the beginning of the end of the Covid nightmare.
It’s been a bad year for many, a terrible one for some; and a pretty crummy one for most of us. But let us just be glad that we have got through it, and that there is a real prospect of better things to come. So I truly wish you all a Very Happy, Healthy and Successful 2021.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.