9 December 2002

Age concern

Tory grandee Lord "Tarzan" Heseltine has called for the party to ditch its leader Iain Duncan-Smith and put Ken Clarke in charge.
According to Tarzan, the Tories haven't a cat in hell's chance of winning the next election with I D S at the helm.
It is difficult to argue with that analysis because Duncan-Smith is an out and out duffer; leading a Shadow Cabinet full of out and out duffers.
There is, however, one small snag: less than a year ago I D S was elected by the whole party membership with a significant majority, and the rules, as they stand, do not allow the Members of Parliament to unseat him.
One of the problems with democracy is that the electorate doesn't always (often?) get it right, which is why the Heseltines of this world prefer the European Union system of rule by an unaccountable political elite made up of people like themselves.
Thus it is that our present two European Commissioners are Chris Patten (booted out by the good people of Bath in 1992) and Neil Kinnock who couldn't even beat John Major.
In an attempt to avoid the accusation that what he is proposing is undemocratic, the former Deputy Prime Minister points out that the Tory party in the country is populated by a bunch of old farts - average age 67 - who are out of touch with the electorate at large.
Michael Heseltine is 69.

Own Goal


The Prime Minister of Portugal has made a speech urging the UK to join the Euro.
He says that, unless we do our duty by the single currency, we will never be able to claim the right to lead Europe.
Whether the Germans and the French would be happy for us to lead Europe, even if we were in the Euro, is a point I will leave you to ponder.
It would seem to Old Grumpy that the Portuguese leader would be better employed at home looking after the shop because, as I write, his country is enduring its second general strike in less than a month.
And the reason for this upsurge in industrial unrest?
The increases in taxes, and cuts in public spending, forced on the Portuguese government by the European Stability Pact, which is part and parcel of Euro membership



Life at the Top

Old Grumpy has watched with open-mouthed wonderment as the Daily Mail has patiently teased out the details of what has come to be known as Cheriegate.
I have tried not to be distracted from the serious political and constitutional issues involved by tales of the massage treatment applied by Ms Caplin to both Mr Blair and Bill Clinton - the Third Way, perhaps - and the exercise regime the lifestyle guru designed to allow Cherie to release her sexual energies.
The mind boggles.
I am reminded of events surrounding Peter Mandelson's home loan from Geoffrey Robinson, when Mandy spent two days touring the studios protesting that he had done nothing wrong.
Then one of the newspapers came up with the killer fact that the Prince of Darkness had neglected to tell the building society from which he had obtained a mortgage that the house was in hock to Robinson, whereupon a tearful Mandy fell on his sword.
Unfortunately, for the Prime Minister, there is no such simple exit strategy from his present troubles.
And beside the misjudgements and the misrepresentations there is another aspect to Cheriegate which could have even more serious long term effects - the Blairs' apparant wealth.
Labour has long capitalised on the Tory's perceived connection with big business fat cats, but here we have Mrs Blair buying two luxury flats with £500,000 of what appears to be stray cash.
When you read in, of all places, the Daily Mirror that: "We see it [the Blair Project] in all its fake glory: a tawdry scam to occupy the high moral ground, preaching to the world while cashing in on power", you know that things will never be the same again.
The politics of envy knows no party boundaries.

Death of democracy

Two recent Western Telegraph editorials have drawn attention to the total lack of democracy under the new Cabinet arrangements for local government.
You can imagine how gravely serious the situation has become if Auntie has noticed.
Last week the County Council's Corporate Governance Committee met to discuss, among other things, a notice of motion remitted from full council, that the Council's constitution should be amended to allow the membership of the four scrutiny committees to be increased from 10 to 12.
But, when the proposer of the motion, Cllr Bill Philpin, turned up to argue the case, he was told by the Council's legal eagles that, as he was not a member of the committee, he was not allowed to speak .
Surely, in any democratic institution the author of a motion should have the right to speak in support of the proposition.
Eventually, after a bit of argy bargy, Cllr Maurice Hughes used his discretionary powers as Chairman of the committee and allowed Cllr Philpin to address the meeting.
Not that it made much difference because before the committee was a report by the Council's Head of Support Services, Mr Huw James (author of the original constitution) recommending that the constitution should stand unchanged.
Given the Independent Political Group's 8-4 majority on the committee, and its policy of slavishly toeing the officers' line, Cllr Philpin's motion was doomed.
Cllr Philpin had more luck with a proposal that questions and answers under Standing Order 9.2 be fully minuted, which the committee accepted without demur.
Though a cynic might conclude that this was more to do with avoiding debate on a potentially embarrassing subject ( see Normal service) than any strong desire for better governance.


Out of picture


Some time ago I drew attention to the frequency with which photographs of members of the County Council's new Cabinet appeared in the local papers.
My interest in this was kindled by information from one of my moles, who told me that instructions had gone out from the Department of Marketing and Communications that all official council photos were to include at least one member of the Cabinet.
This, I was told, was an attempt to persuade a sceptical public that these Cabinet members were very important people i.e. lies and propaganda.
Given the cloak of secrecy surrounding the council's activities, I decided to keep a log of these press appearances with a view to calculating which members of the Cabinet were in, and which were out; in much the same way that, during the cold war, Kremlinologists used to study photos of the Politburo standing on top of Lenin's tomb during the May Day parade in order to untangle the web of power relations in the USSR.
Unfortunately, after I published my first league table of appearances , the Cabinet all but vanished from the news pages.
If I was paranoid, I might have concluded that this was an act of spite designed to spoil my innocent fun.
More likely, however, is that it was the result of my revelation that these pictures and the accompanying press releases were produced at the taxpayers expense, and that, as all the Cabinet are members of the Independent Political (sic) Group, someone in authority concluded that all this one-sided publicity meant the council was sailing rather close to the wind in respect of Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986 which expressly prohibits public expenditure on the publication of "any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party".


I am told that confusion reigned at last week's meeting of the Education Scrutiny Committee.
Apparantly, things were proceeding nicely until the committee came to discuss some figures on truancy.
At that point it was suggested that the information about to be discussed was "confidential" and the committee voted to exclude the public.
Now what the law says (Section 100 Local Government Act 1972) is that members of the public have a general right to attend council meetings and may only be excluded in certain well defined circumstances.
One of those circumstances, that need not concern us here, is when confidential information provided by a government department is up for discussion when the public must be excluded.
The other ground for excluding the public is when "exempt information" is on the agenda when the committee "may by resolution" opt to meet in secret.
"Exempt information" is defined in Schedule 12A of the Act, and clearly does not include general information about truancy rates in schools.
So, the council broke the law.
What I find particularly annoying is that priveleges granted by Parliament can be so casually set aside by our elected representatives, one of whose principle duties is to defend our democratic rights.
Furthermore, they can't plead ignorance because it is incumbant on anyone accepting public office to make sure they understand the law.
This is especially so for the Chairman, in this case Cllr Rosemary Hayes, who is paid an extra £7,500 a year for the "special responsibility" involved.
Particularly as she is a Magistrate, who will soon have the power to send people down for a full twelve months.

Lying low

I have emailed Cllr Maurice "nothing further to add" Hughes repeating my questions about the business relationship beween Cabinet member Brian Hall and the authority's economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan (see Unanswered questions).
To date he has not found time to reply.
Perhaps, he intends to slip a note inside my Christmas card.

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