19 May 15. It was good to find myself back visiting the Palace of Westminster yesterday afternoon following what had been well more than a month’s absence. Typical of what I do to keep in touch I was there to have a meeting with an ‘old-hand’ former member of Coalition Government who I have known for years. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and when it comes to the Palace of Westminster I am inclined to agree. Even after all the many hundreds of times that I have found myself in this great place it remains an honour to stroll through the heart of what is OUR democratic system.
I might better call my visit to the Palace yesterday as the ‘lull before the storm’ for the simple reason that the new class of 2015 do not start ‘lessons’ until today. For most of them yesterday was a day to feel, observe and maybe prepare for the skirmishes that lie ahead but for others it was about finding your way around the place. I suspect that it is also true that the practice of swearing in and taking the oath of allegiance remained in full swing for a time.
The one piece of actual business that was conducted yesterday was the traditional uncontested election of Commons Speaker, in this case John Bercow MP. It was a rather strange feeling to be back in the Palace partly because it was so quiet. For instance, there was not one single person waiting ahead of me in what is most usually a very long queue to get through security. What an absolute stroke of luck although in this case I was not late! Still, when I finally did enter the Main Lobby I did bump into quite a few House of Commons and House of Lords members who I have known for years and who I can see are for the most part champing at the bit to get back to normality. What was your majority is the most typical question for me to ask and for them to ask each other. Double, and even trebled was often the answer and most Tories walked around with a big smile on their faces.
The difficult bit for someone like me who regularly engages in the Palace is getting to know all the various new members that one neither knows nor recognises. The other issue for me is coping with the multitude of changes that have occurred people wise in other sections of Whitehall and particularly all those new advisors that have appeared in No 10.
John Bercow has suffered a miserable press over the years and it is a shame that he has been caused so many embarrassments. I regret that although I well know that his popularity is very mixed. In fact the Tories had on the very last day of the last Parliament attempted to change the procedure by which the Speaker is elected presumably to make it easier to throw a sitting one out if he misbehaves. Thankfully that particular wheeze failed and whilst I may necessarily not be in the majority espousing such views, I do feel that generally Mr Bercow he has done a pretty good job at being champion of backbenchers and ensuring that Members conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of the House. He is not of course the all-time best Speaker of course, that honour surely goes to Baroness Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons between 1992 and 2000.
Pleasant enough speeches and plenty of warm congratulations from both the Prime Minister and the acting Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition Labour Party, Harriet Harman. Today, ahead of the Queen’s speech next week both Houses will begin to get themselves ready for business. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will no doubt be busy laying out the foundations of his planned July budget with his new Treasury Secretary while Business Secretary looks to cut £10bn of red tape for companies before the next election. Who knows, the Foreign Secretary might even be thinking about what it is and where it is that Britain wants to be in the world whilst also think about how he can further slash costs at the already much weakened Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The Home Secretary Teresa May has her hands pretty full and the hope is that Defence Secretary Fallon is working hard to fill the huge capacity and resilience gaps in British defence. I wish!
I’ll spare the others comment but I do fear that having given so many commitments in regard of health and what it will not cut the Tory Government has tied itself up in quite a few knots as to what it can do in terms of cutting the deficit further. We’ll see – at the end of the day (sorry to use that dreadful expressions) I guess that the overall growth of the consumer economy will see us through just as it did for John Major.
The really big issues for this Parliament will be agreeing further devolution for Scotland, considering whether Scottish MP’s should vote on affairs in England and of course, the promised referendum vote on Britain continuing to be a member of the European Union. Word in the lobbies is that there is a possibility that Mr. Cameron may bring this forward to 2016. We will see. If the vote was cast now I personally reckon (I did after all call a Tory win with a small majority on April 30th, a week before the General Election) that the stay in would win by an extremely small majority. Much will depend on how the battle is played. Few believe that Mr. Cameron will be able to go to Brussels and bring back more sovereign powers to the UK or indeed, succeed in changing many other stupid policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy. But for all that, unlike my Conservative MP friend who I was meeting yesterday and a couple of others that have long been Euro sceptics and I perfectly well understand why that I met with, I would have to say that on balance and at the moment and almost solely on the business argument, I am for staying in.
I will not involve myself in the Labour leadership debate because I don’t actually know any of the personalities involved. But I will say that the sooner it is over the better and also, the most important thing of all, to stress the importance of having a strong opposition in the House. That said, I do find it very strange that some would-be Labour leaders find it difficult to accept the damage they did when in the final years of office that took them through the financial crisis of 2007/8 they left the cupboard so bare by spending too much. A little more humility would go a long way with the British public on that score.
And so what of my fears for this next five years apart from the way that we are sleepwalking into a break-up of the United Kingdom without even knowing it and the possibility that the referendum vote on EU membership goes the wrong way? Defence stands uppermost in my mind and while it is true that defence is in far safer hands with the Tories than Labour they just don’t seem to get the message about the increased level of threats. China, India and the whole of the rest of Asia are increasing spending on defence. Mr. Cameron gave a commitment to spending 1% more in each of the years from 2016 but why is it that I fear another fudge? We are being dishonest with ourselves on defence if we believe that we have sufficient capacity and resilience to cope with the level of threats made against us and what may well lie ahead.
Last but by no means least it is the possibility that as the number of unemployed shrinks we will see a resurgence of industrial action. I may have no grounds to even think this but my intuition says that labour unrest in the NHS. Education and other areas of local government services could be a problem that we have yet to face.
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