Westminster Watch – March 2014

Rain, rain, go away.... Toby Craig reviews a wet, windy and eventful month for those in Westminster.

It never rains but it pours...

In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes may hardly happen. Neither tornados nor
earthquakes of any meaningful magnitude ever really afflict us. But when it comes to floods, albeit not quite of biblical proportions, Britain has had more than its fair share. As the relentless rain poured down across the UK, seemingly every day since the turn of the year, serious flooding began to ensue, as heart-rending pictures of homes devastated by water damage played out across our screens and newspapers. In scenes that were replicated all too frequently, rivers had not been dredged or flood defences proved woefully inadequate.

And just when it seemed like things couldn’t get much worse…well that’s when the politicians get involved. The wellies and fluorescent jackets come out, and a range of ministers got primed, preened and ready for their close up. Even the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister felt obliged to don appropriate attire and brave the waters to demonstrate that they were in control and responding to the need. But it’s a surefire bet that whenever politicians seek to look in control, the opposite is probably true and so it appears to have been this time around, with the Government at sixes and sevens about how it prepared for, and then responded to, the heavy rainfall. The row seemed to pull in half the cabinet, with a great deal of finger pointing about who should have done what, when and how. It was a salutary reminder that however interesting global finance, international diplomacy and far-flung conflicts might be, ministers’ focus should rarely be turned away from the here and now on their own doorsteps.

Perhaps the fiercest criticism of all was reserved for Lord Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency. Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, was one of his fiercest critics, accusing him of mismanaging the agency and failing adequately to prepare. Lord Smith is due to step down later this year when his term expires, though WW suspects he may end up leaving the post rather sooner. One can’t help but suspect there may be other casualties before normality is resumed to the water ravaged towns and villages which have been hardest hit.

Battling the Blob

Lord Smith was not the only Labour peer having difficulty holding on to their job. Baroness Sally Morgan controversially lost hers as Education Secretary Michael Gove chose not to
renew her post as chair of OFSTED. With a vision for education which is as bold as it is uncompromising, Gove seems entirely willing to cause deep schisms across the Coalition, and even in his own Department, by filling high profile posts with individuals who are sympathetic to his plans. All part of his battle with what he calls ‘the Blob’; those meddling bureaucrats standing in the way of change. Gove seems a rather unlikely Steve McQueen figure, but perhaps when he gazes into his bathroom mirror, he sees something different. Baroness Morgan, a popular chair, was removed rather unceremoniously, and complained that she was the latest in a trend of Labour supporters being ditched for Tories. Many were sympathetic with that stance, though others questioned what was intrinsically wrong about Governments appointing like-minded, qualified, individuals to key roles. After all, they suggested, it is commonplace in the US for appointments to be made on party lines. However, a particularly interesting feature of this storm in a teacup was how genuine the outrage across Government really was. Some were minded to think that this was one of a number of rows which will give the Coalition parties some differentiating points as the General Election moves into sight.

You couldn’t make it up

Did you hear the one about the Immigration Minister whose cleaner didn’t have a legal visa? It might sound far-fetched, but that was the lot of Mark Harper, who found himself hastily resigning to save the Government from further embarrassment. Dubbed an ‘honourable’ resignation for its unprompted haste (he had already resigned when the story broke), Harper appeared to have carried out reasonable checks, but only realised he had been duped at a later stage. He left nonetheless, saying that he felt obliged to hold himself to a ‘higher standard’. Even the response from the Opposition benches was sympathetic, perhaps reminded of the similar situation which Baroness Scotland had found herself in when in Government; on that occasion, choosing not to resign. A bit of good old fashioned ministerial responsibility is certainly welcome, but it seems hard to envisage how he would have survived the endless parody had it emerged and he had sought to cling to office.

State of the Union

When he wasn’t knee-deep in water, the Prime Minister was taking to the Olympic Park, to channel the spirit of 2012 as he called on Scots to remain a part of the Union. He drew sharp
criticism for failing to head north of the border, but given that Conservatives are about as popular in those parts as the English football team, it may have been a sage move. Whilst the polls still indicate that the Union will win through, there remains a nervousness that Alex Salmond’s charismatic campaign will pick up a surge of support. The Prime Minister’s intervention is a statement of intent that he means to take the fight to the SNP and will work hard to preserve the Union, even if the bulk of his campaigning is done from the safety of England. Prime Minister David Cameron visits residents in the Bablockhythe mobile home park near Witney in Oxfordshire, which has been flooded.

But of course, at a time of substantial flooding, sweeping education reform, sudden resignations and the future of the United Kingdom, salacious stories of Mrs Speaker on a night out still hogged headlines. Well, it just goes to show that in a post Leveson age, the tabloids still have a good sense of proportion.

Toby Craig, Head of Communications at the Bar Council

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