Saturday, 19 July 2014

Notes from the Blue Corner: Thoughts on the reshuffle...

What a week it has been! The knives were out and many a distinguished cabinet and government minister felt the cold steel pressing against their back as they were flung, Lucifer-like, to the inferno of the back benches or shuffled sideways and downwards into lesser posts – nearer the salt cellars as opposed to the mustard pot, on Cameron’s dining table.

Of course, pundits were out in force offering their penny’s worth about this ‘monumental shift’ in the dream team, and, as a Conservative myself, I thought I’d throw my own coppers into the fountain and give my thoughts to anyone who will listen.

Following the announcements on Monday going into Tuesday, hyperbole flew thick and fast. Words like ‘shift’, ‘earthquake’, ‘sea change’, ‘tidal’ were bandied around, and it all got a bit dramatic. Some were in praise, others were in dismay, especially at The Daily Mail.  Carrot-topped hammer-thrower of the home counties, Simon Heffer claimed that the outcome was ‘simply terrifying’ especially when, apparently, a government advisor thought that a ‘clone’ of highly uninspiring Jeremy Hunt (Health) would be perfect in Education. Nicky Morgan is yet to prove herself, and the question will be whether she carries on Gove’s brave and necessary revolution of our education system.

I’ll come to this more in a second, but firstly, let me pin my colours to the mast and say that I am rather dismayed by the rashness of the reshuffle and they way that it was propositioned to the public yet I am not willing to pass judgment on its ability to govern as it is yet to be proven. It does worry me however, that cabinet ministers who had really mastered their brief over years have been cast aside for a younger, fresh-faced and more glamorous collective.

Of the newbies to cabinet, Esther McVey has been lavished with praise, she did a good job as a minister and has never been afraid to make a controversial statement – will her fire be translated into the new role? Time will tell, but it is usually the convention that a place at table requires a certain degrees of quiet loyalty and curbing of the more pugnacious elements of the spirit. This is something that a personal favourite, Michael Gove, found to his detriment when Cameron was drawing up his new look. I look forward to watching her over the next year in the run up to 2015 and, given her impressive presence on television and radio, used extensively as a party figurehead.

Gove has been the most brilliant Education Secretary in modern times, unraveling the mess made of our system since Harold Wilson decided to tinker so disastrously with the lives of Britain’s youth. This is not to say that his predecessors are any different: the lacklustre National Curriculum (1988) of Lord Baker, the disastrous interventions of the Blair/Brown years and the continual, passive treatment of the NUT have all played their part in seeing our education system sink into the doldrums. Gove’s vision, his combativeness and his desire to see a cultural shift has been one of the most impressive and exciting aspects of this Government.

You cannot force change without opposition and of course, the National Union of Teachers, the darlings of the wishy-washy, liberal left have tried to block reform at every turn. Their cynical campaigning and briefings have culminated in the removal of one of the most dynamic figures in British Politics, consigning him to the role of Chief Whip. It all feels like a desire from Downing Street to placate another professional minority to squeeze out a few more votes.

It’s a terrible waste. I am sure Gove will be brilliantly effective in his new role but his talent for policy will surely be missed.  Will Nicky Morgan, his successor and Osborne apparatchik continue with his reforms or will they be shelved in yet another move to placate an outdated and introspective trade union, it all smacks of ‘In Place of Strife’!

William Hague was another departure yet I’m not lamenting this, a highly intelligent man I always felt he was wasted in the Foreign Office in an age where the Prime Minister focuses more on global and less on domestic issues. Announcing his intention to stand down and probably pursue a far more rewarding career, could we see him doing a Portillo? Maybe touring around Yorkshire in a hot air balloon for ITV? Or perhaps in a cameo in Brangelina’s next blockbuster? My old favourite Quentin Letts assures us all that he is back in his element as Leader of the Commons where he will be able to enjoy himself in a more junior cabinet post, letting him indulge in deliciously-wicked despatch box banter.

Max Hastings summed up his replacement Philip ‘The Hamster’ Hammond well: an accountant who displays the warmth of an undertaker and less personality than most laptops. He is a shrewd operator though, and I will watch his tenure in the office with interest, especially on his stance towards the EU.

My political hero, Ken Clarke, has finally gone but what a career! His balance and advice will be missed but, in the words of Francis Urquhart, ‘Nothing lasts forever…’. I hope that he will still be a vocal voice from the back benches and continue to offer his refreshing approach to the European debate and the financial approach of this government.

Owen Paterson was much lamented, he’d done a good job and was on top of his brief. Alas, his right-wing stance seemed rather distasteful to our dear leader and his ruddy, man-from-the-shires look seemed woefully out of touch with focus group findings. He might be gone but I can see him making quite a stink from the back benches, especially as he will now be able to exercise free-rein over his anti-European views.

Of course I could go on and one, but I cannot cover all the changes in such great detail otherwise the blog would stretch to pages and pages of text, but I do think that the appointment of Michael Fallon was a master-stroke. One of the Government’s most media-savvy performers, his performances at the hands of the BBC attack dogs are always entertaining and his stonewalling is a lesson in departmental discretion. A staunch right-winger the Defence brief seems suited to him and I look forward to more passive aggressive performances on the goggle-box in the coming year.

Summing up, I don’t buy this silly ‘Pale and Male’ argument that is being bandied around in some quarters. Perhaps there was some element of positive discrimination but who cares? The Proof will be in how well they perform and, until I see all the new appointments in action, I cannot possibly pass judgment on their ability to do the job.

The most important thing now is to get behind the party to ensure that we edge over the line in 2015, if we in the party keep sniping internally we’ll get nowhere. One thing is for sure, we must at all costs stop the heir to Michael Foot, Ed Miliband with his brand of concrete and breeze block politics getting anywhere near Downing Street. It will be an exciting battle, but I believe we can do it, and, as much as it pains a large section of the party, we need to get behind this new cabinet and offer our support to ensure we get that majority next year. 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Lash and Lacplesis 2: Turning and turning in a widening gyre

‘Shit’ I muttered to myself as I woke up, looking at my watch. It was midday and I felt like death. This was not an usual feeling on high days and holidays, in a recent trip to Hong Kong I had rarely surfaced before four in the afternoon to spend most of the nice punishing wallet, liver and innocence. As with any night of drunken debauchery brief glimmers kept coming back to me. Did I really get up on stage and give a rendition of Mark Morrison’s 1996 classic ‘Return of the Mac’? Did I really pay the equivalent of £20 on a round of Rigan Black Balzam for a twenty strong group? Was I so convinced some new ‘friends’ found in one of the bars were pick-pockets and forced my travelling companion and I to depart rapidly? Did I really pass out at 9 in the morning and wake up on the cold parquet floor? Well… the latter I could answer easily enough as that was where I found myself as I tried to piece the previous evening together from a jumble of hazy mental pictures.

The bars came thick and fast and the beers, vodka red bulls and shots of Black Balzam flowed freely. We met all and sundry, from the foreign exchange students to the middle aged British couple who claimed that they had disovered this Baltic gem years before the rabble descended. Seemingly as a reward, or more a punishment for the scintillating banter that I inflicted in this latter couple, a former electrical engineer and his wife with a complexion like David Dickinson polished with a can of Pledge, they brought me a shot. In fact it was a double shot of Jaegermeister… just filthy, and it was a true test of my gag reflex to keep that foul mixture down. The only consolation was that at least is was a little better than the filthy Black Balzam that seemed to be everywhere.

Moving from bar to bar we eventually ended up at a really unsavoury club that was bursting to the gunnels with people spilling out onto the cobbled pavement. It was here that the evening really took off into another galaxy and where, much to my friend’s embarrassment, I gave a rather passionate three song set covering the New Jack Swing/R&B genre of the early to mid-nineties. Needless to say, we fell back through the door of the bolt-hole the wrong side of 8 in the morning and waking three hours later on the wooden floor I took the somewhat foolish decision to get up, get dressed and talk a walk around the town as much to pull myself together for another day of riotous fun as to get some food and a much needed can of Coca Cola to sop up some of the booze that was still floating about my system.

I soon found salvation in a lesser known fast food retailer, Hesburger, the Scandinavian equivalent to Burger King, serving such interesting offerings as Ruis Burger (in a rye bun with onion rings) and Sausage Potatoes (chopped sausage and gherkins on chips) and the dubious kebab burger, which I opted for in my still drunken stupor. Two flabby patties of seasoned lamb were sandwiched between a soggy pita and garnished with excessive amounts of raw onion and Big Mac sauce. I took two bites and felt distinctly nauseas. My friend opted for a safer ‘Double Burger’ but was more intrigued by a group of squat, hirsute gentlemen who had walked into the joint.
'Definitely Israeli special forces’ he said, as if Riga was some spring resort for members of Mossad, ‘yes, most definitely, that guy over there could snap your neck with his index finger.’ I took his word for it, they looked like hard-boiled fighters and in my soft-boiled state, I was in no hurry to befriend them.

The Israeli theme that seemed to creep up on our lunchtime recovery was from over as, having finished the burger and chugging down Café Crème cigarillos in an attempt to shake the Black Balzam that was ravaging my innards I came across a Russian doll shop specializing in world leaders, or, in fact three themed collections: US Democrat presidents, Glasnost Politburo and hard-line Israeli Prime Ministers. The latter was both hilariously offensive and on special offer, I couldn’t resist – it would be the perfect present for my brother! The woman behind the counter gave a chuckle as I purchased the doll and duly informed me that this was one of their ‘best-sellers’, maybe this was, after all a popular destination for Israeli special forces!

Of course, buoyed by the purchase a beer soon followed and, of course a shot of the villainous Black Balzam. I instantly felt better, there was indeed some black magic in this liquor! And so began a bar crawl throughout the afternoon, punctuated by the FA Cup final and various groups of middle aged men sinking pints of Guinness and getting up to all sorts of vulgar shenanigans in the name of the lads! It was in this vein that we limbered up for yet another evening of debauchery, which I will be covering tomorrow in the third and final part of this epic trip!