Hancock’s Half Page

STRIKES: LABOUR’S CROSS TO BEAR

IN PLACE OF STRIFE

There is still a clip on You Tube from 2011 of Ed Miliband giving exactly the same answer multiple times to a question about a teacher’s strike. The then leader of the Opposition’s strict formula was to say he didn’t want the strike and urged the parties to get round the table to settle it.

That is more or less Sir Keir Starmer’s position now on next week’s planned rail stoppages. On one level Labour’s position is entirely reasonable. They want a settlement, while the government seems to want a punch up with the unions, believing it will go down well with voters in Wakefield and Tiverton.

The danger is that the stance may please nobody. The left asks what is the point of the Labour Party if it can’t give wholehearted support to rail workers demanding a pay rise in line with roaring inflation? The right always wants to depict Labour being in thrall to their paymasters, the unions, in disregard for the travelling public.

Starmer, and other members of the Shadow Cabinet, have been mindful in their statements that there are two groups of workers involved in this dispute. The rail workers with their pay demands and the nurses and teachers trying to get to work.

Labour’s relations with the unions that brought them into existence to give a voice to working people in parliament is a long and troubled one. From Barbara Castle’s attempt to outlaw wildcat strikes in the sixties with her White Paper “In Place of Strife,” then to the pay polices of the Callaghan government in the seventies ending in the winter of discontent that brought them down. Finally, even in opposition, Neil Kinnock’s bitter fight with Arthur Scargill during the miners’ strike.

We will have to see whether Labour’s delicate balancing act works, but it comes at a time when the clamour is growing for Labour to be clearer on its policies and for Sir Keir Starmer to liven up his act.

We must not forget that a big shadow still lingers over the Opposition leader in the shape of Durham police’s investigation into Beergate. It is likely that the boys in blue are holding off their findings until after next Thursdays by election.

If Sir Keir and his deputy, Angela Rayner, are fined, they are out, and we will have turmoil in the leadership of both main parties at a time of roaring inflation and war in Europe. That’s not a recipe for business confidence.

If they are cleared, Starmer and Rayner will be praised for putting their jobs on the line in contrast to the Prime Minister whose problems with propriety have only increased with the resignation of his ethics advisor Lord Geidt.

I’m surprised the peer stayed in the job as long as he did. Johnson made him look a fool when he failed to disclose to him vital WhatsApp messages when Lord Geidt was initially investigating the Downing Street flat decoration scandal.

THEY WENT TOO SOON.

JUMPING THE GUN ON JOHNSON.

“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it was done slowly”…to misquote Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The Conservative rebels moved too fast and have now given the Prime Minister a possible path to fighting the next election. Many think he is toast and pray in aid previous votes of no confidence in Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May which failed but led to their demise soon after.

However, in 1990 Michael Heseltine was a clear alternative to Thatcher as was Johnson to May in 2019. I prefer to look at the John Major case in 1995. When he called a vote of confidence in himself, there was no really credible alternative. Norman Lamont had been sacked as Chancellor and Michael Portillo was being successively promoted by John Major. The Welsh Secretary John Redwood resigned to fight and lost.

John Major then continued as Prime Minister for two years. Battered by EU rebels certainly, but he stayed in office for exactly the period still available to the current Prime Minister.

It is, of course, possible that forces will gather again to oust Johnson, but it is noticeable that relatively few Tories in the North West have joined the rebels. Many got in on Johnson’s coat tails and are either grateful or hopeful that he can win again. Meanwhile how about this scenario? Incredibly defeat in the Wakefield and Tiverton by elections is already expected, so the shock is dissipated. Then we have the Standards inquiry into whether he knowingly mislead parliament. I don’t expect that committee to conclude that he did and anyway Downing Street has reportedly declined to confirm that he would quit if found guilty.

What is more important than party gate and by elections in determining Johnson’s future is the cost of living. If the government can get a handle on that then his chances of survival increase.

By going early, the rebels have possibly saddled themselves with a leader weighed down by scandal with the possibility of losing an eighty-seat majority in 2024.

THE QUEEN’S PRIME MINISTERS.

The political infighting broke out the day after the nation united to celebrate the Queen’s service and it led me to reflect on the relationship between the monarch and her fourteen Prime Ministers.

She began with Winston Churchill who was charmed by the young Queen. The next three Tory leaders, Eden, Macmillan, and Home saw her establish herself on the throne.

It is often presumed that the monarch struggles with Labour Prime Ministers. All the evidence was that the Queen got on well with Harold Wilson, less so with the rather stiff Ted Heath. Wilson made a welcome return followed by Jim Callaghan before the pairing of the Queen with Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. By all accounts it was a difficult relationship. John Major had to handle the divorce of the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana before the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to handle the Queen’s most difficult moment only months after coming into office.

He had to persuade the Queen to come from Scotland and share the nation’s grief after the death of Diana having called her the People’s Princess.

Brown, Cameron, and May followed before the current Prime Minister took office. We should never forget the position she was put in to prorogue Parliament when the EU storm was at its height in the autumn of 2019. The fact that it was subsequently found to be an illegal move, must have left the Queen wondering what would have happened if she had refused prorogation.

The Queen’s impeccable impartiality is something we should all be grateful for.

DRIP….DRIP…..DRIP.

JOHNSON HANGING ON

What are the Prime Minister’s Tory opponents up to? Last week the revelations of riotous parties in No 10 seemed to have hardly moved the dial as far as Boris Johnson’s future was concerned.

He used to be a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. It was a drinking/dining club for toffs and was notorious for trashing restaurants and pubs. The Sue Gray report revealed that members of the Prime Minister’s staff abused the cleaning staff who had to clear up the mess after their parties. The thread of decadent entitlement runs from Bullingdon to Downing Street. The Prime Minister’s presence at a number of those gatherings gave licence to such behaviour, even if Johnson only got one fine.

And yet in the immediate aftermath, the tired mantra that the government must move on to the cost of living and Ukraine was trotted out and it seemed that most Conservative MPs were prepared to live with a leader who is a disgrace to his office.

So how do we explain this week where on a daily basis ones and twos of Conservative MPs are calling on Johnson to go? It is to be hoped that over last weekend they reflected on their supine position, talked to their constituents, and have launched a strategy to undermine the Prime Minister. Standards Czar Lord Geidt’s intervention may spur them on.They may have decided this can most effectively be done by a few moving against him every day to show that this Premiership is going to be incapable of conducting business as usual because partygate will always be there.

We mustn’t get our hopes up too much. Nobody knows how close we are to the fifty four needed to trigger a no confidence vote. Even if one took place, there are 150 odd MPs on the government “pay roll”. Theresa May and John Major have survived in the past.

That said there are two more hurdles for Johnson. The Wakefield and Tiverton by elections and the inquiry into whether the PM knowingly mislead parliament over partygate, although I wouldn’t hold your breath on the latter.

WELL DONE YOUR MAJESTY.

Thank heavens for the integrity of the Queen. Let us praise her this weekend for her seventy years of service. Indeed, it is longer than that. She became heir to the throne in December 1936 and made her first broadcast to evacuated children in 1940.

I can just remember putting up a shield with flags in it for the coronation in 1953 (I still have it, although it is in a battered state). It is my first memory really and makes one reflect on the Queen’s extraordinary longevity.

Support for our Head of State being a hereditary monarch remains high. Republicanism has been a minority sport since Oliver Cromwell died. Opinions may change when Charles the Third comes to the throne. There will be questions about the future of the Commonwealth and the place of the Church of England.

But for now, let us raise a glass to the Queen, who’s first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill in an age of deference. A Queen who has seen us enter and leave the EU, give up an empire and undergo a fundamental change in social attitudes.

Well done your Majesty

TOUGH ON RUSSIA,BUT IS IT ENOUGH?

UKRAINE AND BREXIT

Boris Johnson this week committed the UK to go to war to defend Finland and Sweden even before they join NATO. Given the volatile situation in Europe, this was a brave or reckless action, depending on your point of view.

I think it was the correct decision in the face of the appalling behaviour of Russia in the Ukraine. Under Johnson, the UK is leading Europe in checking Russian aggression.

However, when it comes to Brexit, the generous wide vision is replaced with duplicity and pettiness. The Northern Ireland protocol is an international treaty. Tearing it up would further damage our international reputation, already harmed by Brexit. Johnson should be facing down the Democratic Unionists with a threat to change the Good Friday agreement to allow parties that are willing to form a government at Stormont to do so. Many businesses are reporting they are thriving as the province benefits from its unique status between the UK and the EU Single Market. The DUP voted for Brexit. They are responsible for the checks which, they say, distance themselves from Great Britain.

LOOKING LOCAL.

The local elections in the North West were not bad enough to get Johnson ejected from Number 10. The picture was varied making them the most interesting for some years.

There was never going to be a landslide of council control damaging the Tories. The partial election system prevents that. There were exceptions where some voters had the whole council in their hands. The new authorities of Cumberland and Westmoreland were bad news for the Tories. Cumberland returned a Labour majority despite the county electing a number of Tory MPs in recent years. Meanwhile Westmoreland and Furness was a Lib Dem triumph.

Rossendale was gained by Labour, but they lost control in Hyndburn and did only OK in places like Wirral and West Lancs. Labour’s biggest disappointment was Bolton where the Conservative minority administration held on. There was consolation in Trafford where Labour made four more gains. The council used to be the jewel in the crown for Conservatives in greater Manchester. Now it shows how professionals and middle-class people are turning away from the sort of Tory Party we now have.

The Lib Dems had a better night at last. After 12 years of punishment at the hands of the voters for student fees and Coalition austerity, they made net gain of eighteen councillors in the North West. They will lead the new Westmoreland Council when it starts next year and have a strong claim to lead a minority administration in Stockport. This should have happened last year, but the Tories have propped up Labour. They lost two Bramall wards to the Lib Dems which should see Mark Hunter installed in a few days as leader.

The Greens are challenging the Lib Dems as potential recipients of the protest vote. They made ten net gains in the North West, but we need to acknowledge the big rise in ultra-local parties. It is a sign of the growing disillusionment with all conventional parties that local champions of communities that feel neglected within district councils made sixteen net gains in the North West. In Bury Radcliffe first now have eight councillors whilst in neighbouring Bolton, Farnworth, Horwich and Little Lever all have councillors in the Town Hall.

So, Johnson carries on scoring well on Ukraine, whilst in his own country Sinn Fein and the SNP threaten the union and people’s standard of living falls through the floor. Interesting times.