The Rage Against Rumour

In a moment of glorious irony, the Iron Lady once praised a certain William Whitelaw, faithful Deputy and Leader of the House of Lords, with the phrase “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.” But in recent days and weeks, it seems this gem of Parliamentary wit may have more relevance than ever before. And certainly not in the way Mrs Thatcher would have expected – the British People’s biggest beef with their premier appears to be a small matter of pork.

This unsubstantiated rumour must be music to Bernard Cribbins’ ears, but, in keeping with the honest, sincere style of leadership now infiltrating Westminster, his somewhat discordant Labour Party hasn’t made capital out of it. To do so would dig an even larger hole for himself, and to avoid the jaws of farce is at least slightly commendable. But the media have delighted in tales of Bullington Club antics of late, and it’s coming perilously close to the sort of received wisdom which shrouds Tony Blair’s largely noble premiership and Mother Teresa’s rather suspicious rise to international fame.

It’s all the more sickening when the source of this cheap gossip and cheaper satire is considered. In fact, he’s the exact sort of exorbitant donor despised by Corbynites across the land: one who pours money into the Conservative coffers, sulks for a while about the supposed insignificance of his reward, then publishes an unauthorised biography to claw a bit of cash back from the indiscriminate cesspool outside his realm and embarrass the top of the party he’d given so much to. Apparently, PigGate found its way in as “it would make people smile.” Yes, the great British public who’ll believe anything they’re told are yet again the target of good old-fashioned backstabbing. It’s pathetic.

And yet the sort of people who call for transparency and decency in affairs of state, the new wave of radicals and free-thinkers, the deeply moral individuals who yearn for a political culture in which opponents are treated with honour and respect – it seems that those who would apply such labels to themselves are also the main propagators of profoundly unpleasant fairytales, ones which will leave a generation of schoolchildren unable to look at William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ in quite the same way again. All this with a blissful, self-imposed air of absolute ignorance which dispels any hint alluding to self-centred distortions of the few self-evident particulars.

In truth, this whole business is a fantastically trivial one. However, the wider issue which it illustrates is considerably more substantial: an unprincipled, hypocritical and frankly dangerous form of double-edged criticism pervading British politics like mayonnaise in a shop-bought sandwich. It isn’t even justifiable in the face of perhaps the most nauseating claim Ashcroft’s made in his new pot-boiler, even more disgusting than that which has received the greatest amount of tabloid attention. The prospect of our Prime Minister exposing the homeless to Thatcher’s monetarist crusade head-on is one with truly serious ramifications, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s anything less of a porky-pie than his brief encounter with a pig, no doubt set to a tuneful blast of Rachmaninoff on the gramophone.

Essentially, there’s a decision to be made here. Either ‘Call me Dave’ is innocent of all charges, or the word of a controversial Tory politician is to be taken at face value. The choice is yours.

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The Conservative Catch-22

In the wake of the silence which followed my commentary on the future Tory leadership, I decided I wouldn’t write a sequel to spell out my thoughts that bit more clearly. Here it is.

With the Conservatives reinvigorated by two successive terms in Government, it’s inevitable that some elements of the Parliamentary party will look to leave David Cameron’s mark on the country beyond 2020, much as Thatcherite backbenchers proved to be a persistent challenge for Honest John. But the Iron Lady wasn’t ever seen as replaceable; her fourth son most certainly is. While there wasn’t any clear successor in 1990, there’s definitely a viable contender in the next few years: George Gideon Oliver Osborne, our long-serving Chancellor who’s rapidly becoming the Brown to Cameron’s Blair. Perhaps he always has been.

Unfortunately, rather like the ill-fated heir to New Labour, Osborne lacks his compeer’s relaxed charisma or appeal to floating voters, an issue compounded what many view as decidedly right-wing sympathies. Even though his Dispatch Box performances have seen something of an improvement recently, he may well struggle when confronted with Corbyn’s calm, compassionate style. Most importantly, he’ll have to win an election before thinking about legacies or consolidation. And somehow, I doubt he’s the right man for that particular job.

Similar problems plague the foreseeable candidacies of Gove, May or Javid, who would almost certainly be able to run a whelk stall with perfect organisation and efficiency – but only if the town crier were paid a pretty substantial fee to draw in the punters. Certainly, the perception which asserts the contemporary Tory Party to be led by non-entities and ciphers for each other’s egos would hardly be alleviated by most of the potential leaders who spring to mind, however misguided the foundation.

Boris Johnson provides a welcome exception to this view, but another foul dust of sleaze and distrust floats in his wake. In many respects, he suffers from the opposite problem to that which Osborne is facing: voters might crack a smile when he appears on stage, but some wouldn’t trust him to run the country or thrive on the diplomatic circuit. To put it another way, Westerners will be wondering what their little world has come to when the blonde bombshells of President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson are sat side by side at an international peace summit. Marching into the conference hall to the Peter Gunn Theme, no doubt: the Conservative Chums, the Blue Brothers, Partners in Crime.

There’s just one certainty about the next few years in British politics: they’re uncertain. It’s the only certainty, really. And that, I can tell you, is for certain. But anyway, we live in interesting times, and there are quite a few people who might have a stab at power come 2020. A mirror image of Corbyn’s sudden ascent to prominence, perhaps. I can just imagine the day when Peter Bone is greeted by rapturous cheers at a special Conservative conference, ready to lead his party into the upcoming election and beyond. What a horrible thought…

The Dave of Reckoning

I’m not the first person to work out that the Conservative Party has found itself in a pretty good position following their somewhat unexpected election victory. With Labour mired in cavernous divisions, UKIP smarting from defeat and the Liberals wounded in their worst result since the alliance’s jubilatory inception in the early 80s, the Tories are left with a clear choice: run wide to leave the legacy for which the famished backbenchers are pining or go for the apex and enjoy an unbroken streak of fifteen years in power. Only one tiny little problem stands in the way of a clearly signposted, win-win situation: our tactful premier.

David Cameron has, of course, announced plans to step down in 2020 and set in motion the election for a brand spanking new successor. I don’t blame him; it’s probably the right decision. By the time he leaves office, he’ll have led his party for fifteen years, nibbling at the Iron Lady’s high heels. But even John Major, the criminally underappreciated golden boy of Mrs. Thatcher’s latter reign, admits you’ve got to move on from that most prestigious of posts after a while – the stresses and strains of an indescribably important job, combined with the inevitable disconnectedness of high office, forces a sell-by date upon any self-respecting Prime Minister. Tony Blair chimes with him on this one, admitting that there’s a time for everything, not least power, not least perception, not least concession.

So ‘Call Me Dave’ is set to pull off a very rare trick and go out on a high, no matter what. But it’s inevitable that the pre-election appetiser he’s arranged for television viewers across the land will be a mêlée of competing ideas and principles, a battle for the life and soul of the party exemplified in just a few contenders. Nevertheless, obvious names are few and far between. Mighty acorns rarely prosper in the shadow of the great oak.

For those of you who are checking opinion polls and scratching heads at the sight of the words ‘great oak,’ bear in mind Michael Train-Spotting Portaloo’s really rather perceptive point about the types of people who we choose to lead the nation. There are, in fact, only two. One is the jobbing Member of Parliament who finds himself next in line to the throne whether he likes it or not – yes, they’re exclusively male so far. The other – and you’ll have no trouble guessing one divisive figure that fits into this category – are the ‘destiny’ politicians who enjoy a meteoric rise to power and the most sensational downfalls when they eventually manifest themselves.

In some ways, this mirrors the struggle between monopolists and competitors which keen students of capitalism and players of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ will certainly grasp. To this observation, I’ll add one of my own: since the era of media-fuelled British politics began with the Profumo Affair and ascent of pipe-smoking Yorkshireman Harold Wilson, the highest office of Government has alternated between these groupings without fail. Standing on the shoulders of their respective giants are Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown.

It seems we like change in this country, played out like a soap opera fuelled by the Daily Mail. So we’ll probably end up with a suitably dreary man in a suit if that highly unreliable method is anything to go by. And I can tell you it probably isn’t. Come to think of it, Portillo’s curious admiration for Wilson suddenly seems somehow appropriate. But I’m straying from the matter in hand.

David Cameron was only elected Tory Leader after four years in Parliament, and from there he revolutionised his party with an injection of vigour and the pleasant, open face of an airbrushed fashion model or well-sandpapered cricket bat. From the depths of ridicule, the Conservatives rose to become a truly electable force in a remarkable comeback almost worthy of Nelson Mandela, Slade or Lazarus. When the architect of this return to form finally steps down, it’ll be the end of an era. And that’ll be equally remarkable in itself: a political career that doesn’t end in absolute failure, and a ‘destiny’ Prime Minister who passes the baton with dignity and pride.

When a Referendum Impedes Democracy

Exactly why you’d want to set any sort of threshold at no less than 1.985% is beyond me. Eric Pickles, the precise little man that he is, evidently noticed this peculiarity not too long ago and tried to hack off the precise little fraction at the end. Not everyone agreed, though, and so it remains. Personally, I’d much rather he brought it up to 2% – which, after all, would have been much closer to the original. In fact, I wish it was a lot, lot higher.

Perhaps it might be worth explaining what all this is about. At present, a local authority wishing to raise Council Tax beyond a certain upper limit must take the case to the people and hold a referendum to rubber-stamp their grand plan. No prizes for guessing what that ceiling might be.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. If the voters elect a party on clear taxation pledges which they promptly break at the expense of Joe Public, he’s empowered to foil those dastardly plans with a simple cross in the ballot box. He can fight them in the Council Chamber; he can fight them on the city streets. Consummate democracy in action, you might say. In practice, it’s not that simple.

Naturally, a Labour Council facing pressure from central government would see greater proceeds from Council Tax as a necessary evil under difficult circumstances. However, they just can’t make it happen. The referendum would, almost inevitably, turn out to be an expensive, elaborate folly of rejection and irritation. Joe Public might not have total commonsense, but he does at least possess the illusion of that seemingly rare quality: for him, turkeys voting for an early Christmas are doubtless worthy of their grisly fate.

It’s awfully lucid here in Newcastle, the great Tyneside community of which Jesmond is a leafy suburb. Red-bannered flyers condemn Liberal plans to pour capital down the drain of democracy, all because they’ve got wind of the cash crisis on the horizon. What those leaflets don’t explain are the tricky calculations going on behind the scenes. Essentially, slash-and-burn tactics under the pretence of low taxes just about win elections, costly referendums most certainly don’t. I’m pretty sure they know it’s ultimately suicide: eventually, the local authority won’t be able to offer the services which the law says it must provide, and then they’ll be in real trouble. The problem is that there really isn’t much of a choice.

As rare as this admission may be, it all strikes me as a good example of the Tories backing their Blairite nemesis into a corner with very deliberate political games, hence the unsuccessful attempt to lower the threshold in the first place. Perhaps the rise of Corbyn’s decidedly retro brand of loud and proud Socialism will get things changed, but I doubt it. After all, it’s the left’s own aversion to federalism which is being used against it in Labour heartlands such as Newcastle.

But if we wanted a truly democratic approach, we could just have a simple system through which we vote out the party which breaks promises and gives other schools of thought a chance in their place. We could call it an election.